10 Things to Say (and NOT Say) to Someone with Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide September 01, 2010
  • “Oh, my mom had breast cancer. She died. What a horrible experience!”“I had a friend who did chemo, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to her…” And there you have it, folks, two of the WORST things you can say to a woman who’s just been diagnosed w...

32 Comments
  • Pam Flores
    Health Guide
    Sep. 01, 2010

    Hi PJ, thanks so much for this list!  It is really hard knowing what not to say or say, so thanks for helping us out.  Sometimes stupid things just slip out, and you didn't really mean to say it, but it happens unfortunately.  It probably has to do with the anxiety or fear of trying to find the right thing to say.

     

    Thanks again,

     

    ...
    RHMLucky777
    Read More

    Hi PJ, thanks so much for this list!  It is really hard knowing what not to say or say, so thanks for helping us out.  Sometimes stupid things just slip out, and you didn't really mean to say it, but it happens unfortunately.  It probably has to do with the anxiety or fear of trying to find the right thing to say.

     

    Thanks again,

     

    Pam

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 01, 2010

      Thanks for connecting here, Pam. I'm sure you've heard your share of thoughtless comments, too, as you deal with your health issues. What can you do, right? Educate, educate... Have a good one - PJH

    • MM
      MM
      Sep. 10, 2010

      I had someone say to me that she knew "just how I felt" after having my double mastectomy with reconstruction.  I replied that I didn't realize that she had had breast cancer and a mastectomy and she answered "Oh, I didn't have that but I did have breast enhancement surgery and it's basically the same procedure."

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 10, 2010

      Well, hopefully she meant well... But as we know, NO ONE ecept a fellow survivor has even an inkling of how you feel after hearing you have cancer... You're among friends here, MM; that's the nice thing about this site. We've been there, not on your exact journey, but similar enough to offer loving support. Be well - PJH

    • whitmork
      Sep. 10, 2010

      My neighbor told me the other day she wished she could find a way for her insurance to pay for a boob job.  I put a big smile on my face and said, "All you have to do is go through six rounds of chemo, 35 rounds of radiation, and about four other surgeries, and they'll pay nearly every penny of it!" 

  • sue
    sue
    Aug. 05, 2011

    THE FIRST THING I WOULD LIKE TO DO IS APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR UNFORTUNATE DX.  IN NO WAY WAS I TRYING TO DOWNPLAY SOMEOME HAVING CANCER!!  GUESS I WAS WAY, WAY OFF TRYING TO GET A LITTLE SUPPORT FOR WHAT I HAVE BEEN GOING THROUGH, YOU KNOW THE CERVICAL CA, WITH SOME GOOD OLD CHEM, ALONG WOITH THE HYST, AND THEN LATER THE OOPERECTOMY A YEAR LATER ALSO NOT...

    RHMLucky777

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    THE FIRST THING I WOULD LIKE TO DO IS APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR UNFORTUNATE DX.  IN NO WAY WAS I TRYING TO DOWNPLAY SOMEOME HAVING CANCER!!  GUESS I WAS WAY, WAY OFF TRYING TO GET A LITTLE SUPPORT FOR WHAT I HAVE BEEN GOING THROUGH, YOU KNOW THE CERVICAL CA, WITH SOME GOOD OLD CHEM, ALONG WOITH THE HYST, AND THEN LATER THE OOPERECTOMY A YEAR LATER ALSO NOT TO MENTION WATCHING MY MOTHER, MY BEST FRIEND IN THE WORLD GO THROUGH MOST OF THE THINGS U HAVE HAD TO EXPERIENCE!!  GUESS I HAVE HAD IT PRETTY DARN EASY HAVING A CHOICE OF HAVIMG THE PROPH MAST INSTEAD OF THE WAITING AROUND FOR BREST CA THEN, I COULD PERHAPS SEE AND FEEL WHAT MY MOTHER AND MILLIONS OF WOMEN HAVE TO SUFFER THROUGH.  I GUESS THIS IS JUST NOT THE RIGHT SITE FOR ME TO ASK FOR A LITTLE ADVISE ABOUT THE MAST PART AND THE RESCRTUCTION. 

    AS I SAID BEFORE TO ALL MY PRAYERS ARE WITH U. 

    • Phyllis Johnson
      Health Guide
      Aug. 06, 2011

      Sue, I guess I am not seeing the post you are replying to.  You are person with the BRCA gene, and you are going through much of the same surgery as those diagnosed with breast cancer, so this is a good site for you to get information, and to share your concerns.  In fact, many of our readers fit another category you belong to:  people whose...

      RHMLucky777

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      Sue, I guess I am not seeing the post you are replying to.  You are person with the BRCA gene, and you are going through much of the same surgery as those diagnosed with breast cancer, so this is a good site for you to get information, and to share your concerns.  In fact, many of our readers fit another category you belong to:  people whose mothers have or have had breast cancer.  This site is for anyone who is interested in the topic.

      Another organization you might be interested in is FORCE (Facing Our Risk for Cancer Empowered) for people with the genes for breast and ovarian cancer.  Although we have some articles on this site on that topic, you will find even more at the FORCE website.

      I hope the rest of your reconstruction surgery goes well, and that it works to prevent cancer.  I'm sure that getting the news you carry the BRCA gene was tough, but I'm glad that it has led to your being able to take steps to avoid a cancer diagnosis.

    • sue
      sue
      Aug. 07, 2011

      HI, I GUESS I'M NOT SURE NOW WHAT I WAS COMMENTING ON. YOU I WENT TO THE FORCE SITE SEVERAL TIMES TRYING TO GET INVOVLED IN THE FORCE AND IT JUST WASNT LETTING ME IN.  ITS BEEN AWHILE SO MAYBE I'LL GIVE IT ANOTHER SHOT, IT KEPT REJECTING ALL MY ATTEMPTS.   ONE THING I WAS WANDERING WAS IT WASNT LETTING ME IN BECAUSE IT WAS FOR "YOUNG LADIES"...

      RHMLucky777

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      HI, I GUESS I'M NOT SURE NOW WHAT I WAS COMMENTING ON. YOU I WENT TO THE FORCE SITE SEVERAL TIMES TRYING TO GET INVOVLED IN THE FORCE AND IT JUST WASNT LETTING ME IN.  ITS BEEN AWHILE SO MAYBE I'LL GIVE IT ANOTHER SHOT, IT KEPT REJECTING ALL MY ATTEMPTS.   ONE THING I WAS WANDERING WAS IT WASNT LETTING ME IN BECAUSE IT WAS FOR "YOUNG LADIES" IT ASKED FOR MY AGE WHICH IS 51 AND IT I BELEIVE SAID FOR UP TP AGES AROUNG 35-40, SO MAYBE THATS WHY.  HOWEVER IT DID LET ME LISTEN TO SOME OF THE WOMENS EXPERIENCES/ILLNESSESS WITH CA OR PROPH MAST BUT WHN I TRIED SEVERAL TIMES IT WOUND NOT LET ME IN.  SO I'LL GIVE IT ANOTHER SHOT.  AGAIN I APOLIGIZE IF YOU THOGHT I WAS IN ANYWAY DOWNPLAYING YOUR CA.  YOU SOUND LIKE A VERY STROUG PERSON AND I RESPECT THAT AND YOU ARE A FIGHTER!!  BEST OF LUCK TO YOU

      SUE

    • Phyllis Johnson
      Health Guide
      Aug. 07, 2011

      Sue, your idea about trying the FORCE website again is a good one.  I don't go there often but when I went there this morning, in the community section there were quite a few stories from women in their fifties and sixties.  Good luck to you as you continue through the reconstruction process.

    • sue
      sue
      Aug. 07, 2011

      thanks and best to you and yours!!

      sue

    • sue
      sue
      Aug. 07, 2011

      thanks and best to you and yours!!

      sue

  • Anonymous
    sw
    Sep. 22, 2010

    The doctor who gave me the news that I had breast cancer told me that I was lucky, my cancer was small. I do not think the word lucky and cancer go together. He also asked another doctor in front of me why is she so upset. My "lucky" diagnosis turned out not so lucky the lumpectomy turned into a partial masectomy had to have another lymph node operation...

    RHMLucky777

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    The doctor who gave me the news that I had breast cancer told me that I was lucky, my cancer was small. I do not think the word lucky and cancer go together. He also asked another doctor in front of me why is she so upset. My "lucky" diagnosis turned out not so lucky the lumpectomy turned into a partial masectomy had to have another lymph node operation chemo radiation and all the unpleasantness that goes with these plus lymphodema. Doctors too need to rethink what they say, my oncologist i have now is a sympathetic and caring person.

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 22, 2010

      There are thoughtful/thoughtless docs out there - just as in the population as a whole. Glad you've found a better one. Peace- PJH

  • Jan
    Jan
    Sep. 10, 2010

    Hi, PJ,

    Thanks for the great tips, which resonate well with me. I give similar ones when I speak at various forums about my cancer journey. As a breast cancer survivor, I have been the recipient of many insensitive remarks. One of them that stands out: When I told a person I would not eat a particular diet he insisted I adopt, he asked, "Are you prepared to...

    RHMLucky777

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    Hi, PJ,

    Thanks for the great tips, which resonate well with me. I give similar ones when I speak at various forums about my cancer journey. As a breast cancer survivor, I have been the recipient of many insensitive remarks. One of them that stands out: When I told a person I would not eat a particular diet he insisted I adopt, he asked, "Are you prepared to die?" Fourteen years later I am still around. I wondered how this person, a guidance counselor at a community college in a major metro area, could be so insensitive. But it takes all kinds to make the world go round. And as you mentioned, many people don't even realize the implications of what they are saying, and would prefer to say something rather than nothing at all.

    I appreciate your insights, as usual.

    Jan

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 11, 2010

      Thanks, Jan. Always nice to hear from you here - PJH

  • Calico
    Sep. 10, 2010

     . . . . an acquaintance who tells me a long story about her mother's battle with breast cancer, and when I ask how she's doing, she says, "Oh, she died."

     

     . . . . . . or the acquaintance who tells me she wants to be there for me because she couldn't be there for a long-distance friend (who also died).

     

     . . . .  or, now...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

     . . . . an acquaintance who tells me a long story about her mother's battle with breast cancer, and when I ask how she's doing, she says, "Oh, she died."

     

     . . . . . . or the acquaintance who tells me she wants to be there for me because she couldn't be there for a long-distance friend (who also died).

     

     . . . .  or, now having had a recurrence, the people who ask me if had a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and when I say a lumpectomy, they say, "Oh, well, my (wife, mom, sister, aunt, friend) had a mastecomy", the implication being that if I had done THAT I wouldn't be in this pickle.

     

     . . . . . . or the GP who tells me I'm the fastest recurrence he's ever seen,

     

     . . . .  or . . . .

     

    It goes on and on . . . .

     

    Calico

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 10, 2010

      Even doctors are't immune to these slips, are they? Reinforces the fact that there's a solid dividing line between those who've gone through this, either themselves or with a loved one; and those who haven't. Experience is the best teacher... even when the lesson is a dreadful one. Take care, Calico - PJH

    • Calico
      Sep. 10, 2010

      Yep, experience is a good teacher, but one thing I think we who have/are going through it have to guard against are being "know it alls", jumping to conclusions if our doctors/choices are different than someone else's.

       

      All in all, I think the best thing to do is listen, and to let people know you are holding a vision of them being healthy and whole. ...

      RHMLucky777

      Read More

      Yep, experience is a good teacher, but one thing I think we who have/are going through it have to guard against are being "know it alls", jumping to conclusions if our doctors/choices are different than someone else's.

       

      All in all, I think the best thing to do is listen, and to let people know you are holding a vision of them being healthy and whole.  That can be hard to do for oneself when one's mortality is in play.

       

      Calico

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 11, 2010

      Yes, you're right - experience can be a double-sided coin. I often tell women, "We each have our own personal experience with cancer; no two stories are ever exactly alike." It's OK when your side effects don't match those in the list your oncologist gave you, when you're taking longer to heal than someone else in the support group - when you don't follow the...

      RHMLucky777

      Read More

      Yes, you're right - experience can be a double-sided coin. I often tell women, "We each have our own personal experience with cancer; no two stories are ever exactly alike." It's OK when your side effects don't match those in the list your oncologist gave you, when you're taking longer to heal than someone else in the support group - when you don't follow the statistics. We're not statistics - we're women. And that will always be the wild card... PJH

  • Joe Meadows
    Sep. 10, 2010

    PJ,

     

    GREAT advice here, and one of the most concise "do's and don'ts" lists I've ever read on the subject.  The concepts here also apply to the spouse or partner of a recently - diagnosed woman.  Just knowing that people care, and are willing to help if (when) it's needed means the world.  Thanks for writing this.

     

    Joe

     

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 10, 2010

      So nice to hear from you here, Joe - you've probably had a lot of experience with these scenarios, eh? Thanks for adding that the caregiver is just as likely to hear (fend off) these comments as his/her partner... Take care- PJH

  • Anonymous
    sandie
    Sep. 10, 2010

    Shortly after my diagnosis of Breast Cancer and the BRCA1 mutation, my husbands mother said... This is Gods sign that you need to go to Church. WOW this was the worst thing I could have ever heard in my life. Just remember theres an idiot born every minute and sometimes we have them in our family...

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 10, 2010

      Sometimes we just have to be Teflon - let it rollllllll right off, esp. with family... Hope things improved after that! PJH

  • janimil
    Sep. 10, 2010

    Doctors need to learn, too, how to talk to breast cancer patients.  The first person I heard the "I know someone who died" thing from was the the doctor doing my biopsy.  Is that really what you want to hear while you are laying there with a breast out, being poked, and worrying about it all?

     

    He was otherwise a very nice and caring doctor,...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    Doctors need to learn, too, how to talk to breast cancer patients.  The first person I heard the "I know someone who died" thing from was the the doctor doing my biopsy.  Is that really what you want to hear while you are laying there with a breast out, being poked, and worrying about it all?

     

    He was otherwise a very nice and caring doctor, and he was meaning to say how much he hated breast cancer taking people he cared about, but to the patient, it sends a very different message.

     

    ~J

     

     

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 10, 2010

      Whoa, I'm sure he meant well, but he needs to go back and take Bedside Manner 101 again! Undecided PJH

    • whitmork
      Sep. 10, 2010

      My general physician's nurse asked me how I got bc.  Seriously?  If I didn't adore my physician so much, I'd change doctors.

  • Bernadette Wolff
    Sep. 06, 2010

    Being a well-known Christian in my community, who has long advocated that all things, good and bad, are allowed to happen for God's good reasons, uninitelligible though they may seem to us at the given time, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, more than once, I was asked, "Why did God do this to you?  You're such a nice person! ...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    Being a well-known Christian in my community, who has long advocated that all things, good and bad, are allowed to happen for God's good reasons, uninitelligible though they may seem to us at the given time, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, more than once, I was asked, "Why did God do this to you?  You're such a nice person!  You've already been through so much!"  And, "Do you still love Him?"

     

    Naturally, my breast cancer diagnosis shook the very roots of my faith.  Thanks be to God, my roots had already grown deep enough to sustain the blow.  I told them that, yes, I still love Him, only more now that I have lost both my natural breasts, despite the disfigurement and the humiliation I suffered because I can now identify with Him more closely in the wake of my loss.  I know the sting of ruptured flesh, the slap of assaulted pride, and the inner disharmony and worry over an uncertain post-cancer aftermath.  Now, I can be His friend more dearly, more intimately.

     

    I dont' know why He allowed this to happen to me (not DID this to me).  I have offered it up as expiation for my past sins of the flesh and perhaps He will accept this offering as He is an all-merciful God. At any rate, I'm certain that His provision was of His Divine Providence, and I know that nice people suffer, too, in God's plan. 

     

    We all have nice and not-so-nice aspects of our personalities, even those whom we consider as saints on earth.  Suffering brings humility.  It magnifies the weakness of our fallen nature, that we may see with clearer vision that we are not of our own autonomy but that He is our sustenance and The Giver of Life.  Suffering helps us to keep our focus on what Jesus did to save our souls.  In and of itself, a gift.

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 06, 2010

      Thanks for your long post here, Bernadette. I know it'll resonate with many of our readers. Take good care- PJH

    • Renae
      Sep. 13, 2010

      Well put, Bernadette, and I totally agree with what you said. Because of breast cancer, my walk with Jesus has become even sweeter. It has also given me new eyes for working with my cancer patients. 

  • sue dyer
    Sep. 03, 2010

    When I was first diagnosed, a young student teacher I'd been working with said, "A-a-ah". I asked him not to "A-a-ah" me as I didn't see myself as an object of pity. I told him that I was a strong woman and would deal with it.

     

    My best advice is to try to be sensitive to your friend or loved one's needs. If she needs sympathy, give sympathy. If she needs...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    When I was first diagnosed, a young student teacher I'd been working with said, "A-a-ah". I asked him not to "A-a-ah" me as I didn't see myself as an object of pity. I told him that I was a strong woman and would deal with it.

     

    My best advice is to try to be sensitive to your friend or loved one's needs. If she needs sympathy, give sympathy. If she needs cheering on, cheer her on. Don't automatically assume that she needs to be treated in any particular way. We are all different, and we deal with our problems in our own way.

     

    The best thing my friends and family did for me was to tell me cancer jokes once they'd realised that this was how I had decided to cut cancer down to size. Smiling became very important to me right through my treatment. It made me feel better.

     

    Sue

    • PJ Hamel
      Health Guide
      Sep. 03, 2010

      And I hope you're still smiling, Sue - betting you are... Hope things are going well with you? FYI, I made your brandied fruit mince a few weeks ago, and made 2" brandied mince tarts 2 days ago - complete with cutout pastry star on the top. I usually don't like candied peel, but oh, my... your recipe is SUPERB! Thanks so mch for sharing. (And why am I doing...

      RHMLucky777

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      And I hope you're still smiling, Sue - betting you are... Hope things are going well with you? FYI, I made your brandied fruit mince a few weeks ago, and made 2" brandied mince tarts 2 days ago - complete with cutout pastry star on the top. I usually don't like candied peel, but oh, my... your recipe is SUPERB! Thanks so mch for sharing. (And why am I doing Christmas baking Christmas in late August? That's how far ahead we work at my "day job" - community manager and Chief Recipe Wrangler at kingarthurflour.com)

       

      Spring is coming, eh? Enjoy - and be well. PJ

  • Phyllis Johnson
    Health Guide
    Sep. 03, 2010

    Thanks for a great list, PJ.  The suggestion to make specific offers about how you would like to help is especially important.  We never asked for help with meals (or much else really), but when my husband's office told him they had a schedule and would be showing up with meals for the week after my surgery, we were so grateful.  That was one...

    RHMLucky777

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    Thanks for a great list, PJ.  The suggestion to make specific offers about how you would like to help is especially important.  We never asked for help with meals (or much else really), but when my husband's office told him they had a schedule and would be showing up with meals for the week after my surgery, we were so grateful.  That was one less thing we had to worry about.

    Although plenty of people made thoughtless comments to me, I found those much easier to forgive than the folks who avoided me completely.  Until you have gone through the experience, it's hard to know what to say, so your list will really help.