Terms of Endearment has always been one of our favorite movies (now rather ironically). Note to younger generation: 1980's movie with Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, and Debra Winger—check it out on your Netflix. I especially love the scene where Debra Winger suffers through a luncheon with a group of friends who politely steer the conversation around all kinds of other topics, but avoid the most obvious elephant in the room. Finally she can't stand it anymore and she shouts at them, "IT'S OK TO TALK ABOUT THE CANCER!"
I've had this experience a few times myself. It's not that cancer has to be the core of every conversation, and I certainly don't want to be defined by it, but the reality is that it is a PART of my life and impacts many of the other parts. I'm comfortable talking about it and want my friends and loved ones to understand this part of my life—not pretend it doesn't exist.
A couple years ago I had a luncheon at my house with a bunch of old girlfriends. We'd been out of touch for a long time. I was about 9 months into my year of treatments following my first diagnosis and during that whole afternoon, not one of them asked me how I was doing or in any way mentioned the cancer. This was very hurtful to me. Conversation stayed on subjects of their families, careers, travels, and other mutual friends. They all knew about it, so I just had to guess whether it was just too uncomfortable for them or they just didn't care. Or then again, maybe they were all of the mindset that "it's just breast cancer."
As it happened, I even received a phone call during lunch from my health insurance to remind me that I was overdue for my annual mammogram (ouch). They all heard me explaining to the woman on the phone that I wouldn't be needing one following my double mastectomy.
I've even had this happen at family gatherings sometimes and it can sure make a person feel unloved, lonely, and isolated. I'm sure not every cancer patient feels as open as I do, and some may prefer to keep their struggle private. I would recommend at least politely asking how they're doing, and giving them the option to shut down the topic if they're uncomfortable. It seems uncaring to completely ignore it. Be respectful, supportive, and allow them to guide the conversation.
Cancer is a scary, uncomfortable topic, but just breaking the ice with three little words—How are you?—can express much-needed compassion.