My aunt, who is only two years older than I am, has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for an inoperable brain tumor. The treatments are not going to be life-saving; they will, however, lengthen her remaining time and stave off the loss of function for a while. Of course, the treatment has the expected side effects of feeling really sick, hair loss, etcetera.
When the family was informed of her diagnosis, I made the decision to start writing her letters--real, handwritten letters, sent through the mail, which to me are so much more personal and dear than email. I wanted to make sure I said all the things that I wanted to say, but, more importantly, I wanted to give her something to enjoy and look forward to. She knows that I know she's ill, and that she's suffering, and all that, so I ignored those topics altogether, instead focusing in my first few letters on the things I admired about her.
After I had gotten the "have to say this" stuff out of my system, I then focused my writings on good things that were happening here in my world. We both love animals, so I wrote about my foster cats, my own cats, my reptiles, and some of the volunteer work I was doing. I wrote about my garden as spring arrived. I told silly stories about my husband and roommate. I shared experiences with favorite restaurants and recipes, talked about art museum visits, and whatever else was going on that was positive. I made sure to tell her that I was perfectly okay with her not responding, that I figured she would want to spend the bulk of her energy on enjoying her family.
At some point, my mother had a chance to talk to her at a family gathering, and she told my mother that she was really enjoying my letters, especially because they focused on the positive things. So I kept writing, and at some point, I called her to answer a question she'd had about a bird. She commented on how irritating it was that people kept asking her how she was feeling. I told her I absolutely understood--that even though my condition is not as serious as hers, it still makes me feel like crap all the time, and so I never know whether to answer the question, "How are you feeling?" with honesty or not. I'd rather not talk about how I'm feeling, because it's always bad, and if you are always answering honestly in that way, people start to get annoyed with me for never feeling good.
So what should you say to a person who is ill, in lieu of "How are you feeling"? Train yourself to ask a different question. Ask if they've seen any good movies lately, read any good books, that kind of thing. Whatever common ground you've had with them before? Now's the time to draw upon it and talk about those topics. And, if the person is actually wanting to discuss their illness, let them guide you to that topic. I know that I sometimes do want to talk about mine, if only to share experiences that might be helpful to others, or when I need a little support, but a most of the time, if I have the energy for socializing, I'd just rather focus on other things, and I'm grateful to folks who allow me to do that.