More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with cancer. This is tragic in every sense of the word.

And here am I, blogging about it. Poor me–it must be rough having to go through all the pain and suffering of having friends with cancer.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” I say, but so does everyone else. It’s not an information-bearing phrase. The truth is, there’s not much I can do, other than impotently rage, and perhaps write about it.

One day I run into a writer friend of mine at a writerly event. “I’m sorry that cancer is a thing your body is doing,” I want to say, but I feel bad about the prospect of saying something so cliché. Instead, I smile sympathetically, with a bit of a nod. “I’m here for you. I’m thinking about your terrible situation constantly,” my smile says. “I understand what you’re going through, in the abstract sense of one who hasn’t experienced it,” my nod adds. Friend smiles back, but it’s not the kind of smile that reaches the eyes. I wonder how many conversations Friend gets to have that don’t involve cancer. Probably not many, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“How’s it going,” I ask, lamely.

“Not bad,” Friend says. Another non-information-bearing phrase if ever there was one.

I hate this. And there it is again–poor me, having to navigate the conversational pitfalls of someone else’s suffering. Now I feel bad about feeling bad, and again and again, recursively, until the spiral of grief threatens to overwhelm me.

“I know everyone says ‘if there’s anything I can do to help let me know,'” I say, “but I super-really mean it. Seriously, ask me to run an errand for you. Call me at 3 am, even if it’s only because you need someone to talk to.” Just because we live in completely different parts of the country doesn’t mean I can’t put myself out for you, right? But it still sounds flimsy, even with the explicit disclaimers. Because in all likelihood, there isn’t a fool thing I can do.

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Friend says. I wonder how many times that exact line have come up in post-diagnosis conversations, but it’s too depressing a thought to follow through to the end.

Not a thing I can do. Except write.