There are 12 million of us in the United States who live with  cancer and the number rises every year as researchers find new  drugs to extend our lives. Some of us hide our diagnosis even  from trusted loved ones, while others freely share it for a variety  of reasons. I’m sure at least once in everyone’s life they will learn  that a close friend or family member has cancer. How will you  respond when you hear “I have cancer?” Often, there is an awkward moment when people hear someone  is living cancer—or worse, expects to eventually die from it.  Listeners hear “cancer” and they become silent as if struggling to  find the right words to say. Those of us who have decided to  share our physical condition with you, often hear words that are  based on your difficulty dealing with illness and death, rather  than on what the diagnosis means to us.  Some well-meaning and sensitive people try to minimize the magnitude of what we are sharing, with  words such as, “Oh don’t worry, we’re just around the corner from a cure.” Or statements filled with  optimism such as “Let’s hope for the best.” And also the sympathetic “Oh, I feel so sorry for what  you’re going through.” The search for the “right” words is futile. There are none. Revealing one has cancer is not simply an issue of deciding to be honest or closed. The decision is  based on a dance between the world of a person who knows he or she has a limited future and their  expectation of how the listener will react. It’s as complicated as a jazz improvisation occurring  between John Coltrane and Miles Davis. So, what should you say if there aren’t any “right” words? When I first started playing the shakuhachi  (Japanese bamboo flute) I struggled to produce the “right” notes in a song I was learning. My teacher,  who not only is a great musician but also a wise philosopher, said, “Stop worrying about the notes.  Think how you would play the song to your child when he was a baby.” For him, notes came from  one’s soul, not from the flute. The same applies in deciding what to say. The words are secondary to  your understanding of how our lives have changed. Instead of thinking about the words, try to imagine what those of us with cancer are experiencing.  Many of us no longer think about death in theoretical terms. It has become something very real to  most, frightening to many, and enlightening to some. Instead of having a lifetime to make up for our  regrets, we may have a limited amount of time to remedy them. Instead of years to complete goals,  we may begin focusing on how we are currently living our lives. How we approach that understanding  is rarely straight-forward. It’s as circuitous as Lombard Street is here in San Francisco.  It is from this world that we are sharing with you that we have a life-threatening illness. And your  understanding of our world should guide your response. And if you can’t imagine what we are feeling,  rely on compassion.  Someone once asked the Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hahn to define “compassion.” He said to  think about the person you are talking to as if he or she was your mother; the person who fed and  cared for you when you couldn’t do it yourself. So don’t worry about the right words. When you hear “I have cancer,” visualize that it’s your mother  saying the words. And if you still can’t imagine what she would be feeling, then just ask us. We  wouldn’t have shared something this personal if we weren’t prepared answer the question, “How do  you feel about it?”