"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 with breast cancer.
Feeling a little uncertain about how to respond when your best friend, your aunt, or a colleague at work tells you she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer? OK, hopefully you won’t blurt out variations on either of the two statements above. But sometimes things come out of your mouth before you can even think"
What do you say when you’re face to face with a newly diagnosed survivor - and what do you absolutely, positively leave unsaid? This handy guide may help you avoid one of those unhappy "WHY did I say that?!" situations.
What NOT to say:
- "Don’t worry." Followed by "I’ve known lots of women who’ve survived breast cancer," or "It’s probably not as bad as they say," or "You’re going to be just fine,“ or”
Although all of the above are true, saying "Don’t worry" to a woman just diagnosed with breast cancer is like telling someone whose home has just been flattened in a tornado, "It’s OK, insurance will probably pay for part of it."
The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis is so great that it takes weeks to gradually internalize it. In the meantime, your friend does nothing but worry - about everything. Don’t make her feel bad by asking her to skip this natural first step on the way back to health.
- "What can I do for you?"
Any woman diagnosed with breast cancer is immediately presented with an overwhelming number of potentially life-and-death decisions. Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Chemo - yes or no? Reconstruction? Your offer to help, though wonderfully generous, feels to her like one more decision to be made.
Rather than ask her what you can do, offer to make dinner next Wednesday night, and bring takeout pizza to the kids on Friday. Or let her know you’ll take care of her kids if any of her doctors’ appointments fall at awkward times. Tell her you’d be glad to come weed her garden Saturday. Trust me, it’s much easier for her to say, "Oh, I’d LOVE that!" (Or "No thanks") than it is to try to think of what needs to be done.
- "How do you think you’ll feel about losing a breast?"
As good a friend as you are, wait for her to bring up the emotional side of breast surgery. She may still be trying to decide between lumpectomy and mastectomy. So instead, ask her, "Have you made a decision about surgery?"
If she says she can’t decide, ask if she’d like you to listen to the pros and cons and help her make up her mind. The emotional side of mastectomy may very well come up during this discussion.
- "I wonder why you got cancer? You seem so healthy."
Yeah, she’s probably wondering the exact same thing! And worrying that she did something wrong along the way" Was it waiting too long to have her first child? The wild life she led in college? Birth control pills?
About 85% of us diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors. It does absolutely no good trying to figure out why you drew the short straw. So donâ�™t ask a question that encourages her to think along these lines.
- “Are you going to quit your job, or”?"
A breast cancer diagnosis is a major life crisis. But for many women, so is quitting a job. Unless a woman’s very close to retirement, or in a dead-end career she dislikes, it’s unlikely she’s even considering quitting. And it’s VERY likely she’s afraid she won’t be able to do her job; afraid she’ll be fired or let go.
The fact that you’re even asking may ratchet up her worries, especially if you’re a work colleague. "Does she know something I don’t know? Am I going to get the ax?" Don’t you be the one to bring up her work schedule; let her do it.
So, enough with the negatives. What’s the BEST thing to say to your friend or family member who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
- "Say anything you like to me. I won’t be shocked, offended, or hold it against you - ever."
As women, we always worry about how our actions and words will affect others. We want to be a good friend: strong, generous, even-keeled, empathetic.
But as newly diagnosed survivors, we find ourselves feeling anything but calm. We want to kick and scream, cry, curse, and lash out at" something. Or someone It’s very hard to keep those emotions in check 24/7; nor should we. Offloading negative emotions is a healing process.
So telling your friend to "Go ahead, lay it all on me" is a gift. She may never break down in front of you, but if she does - she knows you won’t take it to heart, and you’ll be there for her afterwards.
- "How about dinner and a movie?"
Newly diagnosed survivors want nothing more than a return to normalcy. A couple of hours of distraction - laughs and gossip with a girlfriend - are probably just what the doctor ordered.
- "Would you like me to come to any of your appointments with you? I’m really good at listening and taking notes."
The initial round of doctors’ and surgeon’s appointments is fast-paced and incredibly confusing. All of a sudden, your friend has been thrust into a situation where she doesn’t understand the vocabulary, is still trying to understand she has cancer, and feels woefully unprepared to make the decisions being presented to her.
Having a friend sitting next to you as the doctor fast-forwards through the next 6 months of your life is incredibly helpful. Take notes, or ask the doctor if s/he minds being tape-recorded. Ask clarifying questions; if you, the calm, collected one, don’t understand something, it’s doubtful your terrified friend does. Later, you can go over the notes together, and demystify her treatment.
- “Want to do some research? I know of a great breast cancer site”"
Many women these days immediately turn to the Internet when seeking information. Since you’re reading this post, you’ve already discovered this site. If she’s comfortable online, show her how to register here so she can ask questions, read about breast cancer, and write about her treatment, feelings, and hopes for the future - all in a safe, supportive atmosphere.
Most survivors desperately want to connect with other survivors. Breast cancer is a sisterhood; we’re a long chain of women, some leading, some following, all holding hands as we get through this together. Help her join this community; it’s one of the very best things you can do for her.
Bonus: This won’t apply to everyone, but if your friend is religious or spiritual, touch on that. Tell her you’ll pray for her; you’re sending her good karma, or that you’ll do some Reiki with her. Treat her to a therapeutic massage. Join her on the spiritual part of her cancer journey, if you’re able. Healing the soul is just as important as healing the body.
Finally, if none of the words above seem to fit your relationship (or the circumstances), a hug is always welcome. Or a shoulder squeeze. Even a simple pat on the arm. The human touch - literally - is wonderfully healing.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.