What to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer

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I just received a message from a Facebook friend. This was someone I hardly know. We have meet a few times in person, and occasionally will comment on each others’ Facebook posts, and I don’t think I have seen him for at least five years. But I was happy to be approached because it shows that by being open about what I am personally going through I am able to help others too. Yay, a small benefit to this shit hand I’ve been dealt!

Anyway, I digress. He contacted me because he was wondering what to say to an ex-work colleague who he is still in contact with who now has breast cancer. Other mutual friends are pussy-footing around the issue, but he was seeing her soon and he wanted to speak directly and ask questions as he normally would. But how should he go about this?

If he has this question, then I am sure plenty of other people do too, so I thought this could be a good place to share my ideas because, well, a month or so ago I would have asked the same question too! Of course everyone is different, but here are some ideas of what to say and what not to say.

So firstly know that the person you are speaking to with breast cancer is likely to be totally consumed with it. Every second thought going through her (or it could be “his”, but for the sake of this post I’m going with the majority and using “her”) mind is going to relate to the cancer in some way or other. You ignoring what is essentially her whole life now is not going to help anyone. It will just make everything awkward.

I’ve said before, the single hardest bit for me so far has been telling people I have breast cancer. So don’t wait and expect to be told in person. If you have heard from someone else, that is enough.

In general, the best way to approach the situation is to be open and honest. Acknowledge that you know about the cancer, that it is completely shit, and offer your help and support. That is all. Even just ask if she is doing okay. Be lead then by the responses and respect them. She may not want to talk and you get a simple “Thank you”. Or you might get told every detail like you would hear from me 🙂 Once the ice is broken it becomes a lot easier.

Don’t assume that she is feeling a certain way. Everyone reacts differently to their cancer. The best thing to do is to politely and respectfully ask questions. Most people are happy to talk and educate others around them if approached in the right way.

So, be honest and direct. Even admitting you don’t know what to say is okay. Whatever you do though don’t be patronising and don’t have THAT look of pity in your eyes.

There are also a whole pile of specific things that someone with breast cancer does not want to hear! Here are some things that you probably should not say:

  • “It’s okay” Um, no, it’s not okay. It’s anything BUT okay.
  • “You are so brave” No I’m not, I am just doing what I have to do, I did not get a choice about this.
  • “You are looking great” This is particularly bad when going through chemo and she has no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes, has put on 10kg and has a distinct green tinge from vomiting!
  •  “I’m sorry” This one really gets to me. This is nothing for YOU to be sorry about, you did not do this to me and I absolutely do not want your pity!
  • “But you get nice new perky boobs” Do I actually have to explain how bad this could be? (This is okay if she says something first. I know I joked a lot about new boobs, but never say it first!)
  • “my Aunt had breast cancer….” Or your mum or sister or…you get the point! This does not mean you understand what is going on so please don’t tell your stories of other people. Only those who have been through this themselves truely understand, and they know not to do this. (I acknowledge that this is something I would do, I will have to remember in future to NOT do this)
  • “You’re done with treatment, you’re all good now, right?” Okay, so I’m not at this stage yet, but I have seen lots of others talk about this. I am not going to list them all here, but there are dozens – probably hundreds – of side effects from chemo, radiation and hormone therapy (which you are on for ten years anyway!). The cancer may be gone, but it will be a long time – if ever – before a survivor is “all good!” 

Remember someone with breast cancer is still the same person she was before her diagnosis, now she just has a battle on her hands. Sometimes just getting herself through the day takes every ounce of energy she has. Something as simple as asking if she’s okay and the offer to pick up the kids from school or a few groceries can make the world of difference. 

(Footnote: Some of the information above comes from what I have read in cancer support groups. I personally have not been offended by anyone’s reaction to me having cancer yet. That may change as the months go on, but right now, even if you have said one of those things above I said not to say, I have not taken it to heart. I have loved every message of support I have received.)

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