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Cancer Fact Monday: What NOT to say to a breast cancer survivor


Here is a list of what NOT to say when someone tells you she has breast cancer. If you have said this to someone, don't worry, we don't hate you. I'm sure before my diagnosis, I might have even said some of these myself. But having been on the receiving end, trust me, these are ones we could do without hearing:

  1. "Don't worry, everything will be fine." I know this one may sound pretty harmless and the right thing to say. However, we have just been told that something in our body is trying to kill us, and we now need surgery, chemo, and/or radiation to get rid of it. And even if we do everything right, we still will be forever changed, and worse, might still die. So no, hearing everything will be alright does not help or make us worry less.

  2. "I know how you feel." Oh really??? Unless you have also heard those dreaded words, you really shouldn't say that. And even if you have, you still shouldn't say that. Each of us process our diagnosis differently, so it's not the same for everyone, even those of us with the exact same cancer. For me, having a full time job, husband, and 2 kids in school when I was diagnosed meant I was faced with different challenges than a woman with no kids, or a woman with adult children or a unmarried woman. So, although you might have an idea of how a feel, you can't really KNOW.

  3. "My aunt had breast cancer. She had surgery and chemo and fought for 2 years before she died." Thanks, really wanted to be reminded that I could go through all this and die anyway. I can't tell you how many people would tell me about how some relative went through treatment, so I would be fine too, or not, if they died. I understand wanting to tell your friend about how your mother went through treatment and is now fine because that means I will be fine too. But normally there is also a story as to how terrible it was for her that you will also tell me. And that is the one I don't want to hear, especially when I'm just learning about the battle I'm about to face.

  4. "I heard about your diagnosis and I was up all night crying." Way to make it about you! I know you are my friend and want me to know that you are upset too, but there's a better way to let me know that besides making me feel guilty that I upset you. I know that isn't the intent when someone says that, but it's exactly how we feel when we hear it.

  5. "Well, at least you got the good cancer. They know so much about breast cancer." So there's a good cancer??? I know that breast cancer is one of the most researched cancers, and yet, women still die from it EVERY DAY. I understand the sentiment...at least it isn't a rare form of cancer that doesn't have any treatment. However, since it's still cancer, not sure why being more popular and more familiar makes it "good".

  6. "At least you get a free boob job." Yes, thank goodness cause I would rather have cancer than pay for plastic surgery. Seriously, people actually say this to women when they learn of their diagnosis. I, of all people, understand wanting to make light of such an emotionally heavy subject. Those who know me know I joke about EVERYTHING, but, unless you know the person well, this isn't a joke they want to hear.

  7. "How did you get it? Maybe you should have exercised more/ not gone on the birth control pill/ worn less deodorant." People, you can't catch breast cancer. As I sit here, there are studies out there talking about how to "prevent" cancer" with your food and diet. Well, first, that will do nothing for women who are genetically predetermined to get breast cancer. Second, even if there is a way to do so, suggesting to someone who already has it that there was someway to prevent it is just cruel. I can remember someone sending me to a website which talked about how dangerous chemo was and how an alternative route was the way to go, AFTER I had completed chemo. That's like telling me there was a cheaper flight after I make it to my destination...it's just going to make me mad and wonder if I should have done something different about something I can't change.

  8. "You can't be sick cause you look great." So, exactly how does someone with breast cancer look? I remember someone being so insistent that I couldn't possibly be going through chemo because I looked so good, that it must not be working. I literally said "well, you looked pretty smart until you opened your mouth and proved otherwise." Yeah, not one of my finest moments, but he deserved it. We don't look sick all the time. In fact, I was perfectly fine prior to my surgery, except for that tumor hanging out in my boob trying to kill me. And for many women, especially metastatic survivors, they are constantly going through treatment, so are they supposed to always look sick.

  1. "Everything happens for a reason." I know, this one sounds pretty innocuous and is actually one I believe in. However, when you are faced with something like breast cancer, something that will forever change you and your loved ones, something that may even kill you, the last thing you want to hear is how it happens for some reason. Especially when no one can really tell you the reason. As the person with cancer, I can promise you, we are already questioning the reason why this is happening and not getting a good answer. So hearing from yet another person, even a well meaning one, that there is a reason I'm having to deal with all that comes with having breast cancer, just doesn't make me feel any better.

  2. And last but not least, my all time rudest is "Get over it already." Yes, I've been told this more than once, and each time, it takes everything I have not to smack the person in the face. I understand that having a friend with cancer is super scary and you may not want to think or talk about it anymore. Unfortunately, it’s never really over for us. We have to keep thinking about it and/or dealing with it. Treatment can cause lots of collateral damage like lymphedema, neuropathy, fatigue, joint pain, anxiety, depression, and every spouse's all-time favorite, sexual dysfunction/lack of sexual desire. Also, just because someone’s out of treatment, it doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods. They need to go back to their oncologist every few months for checkups and tests (hello scanxiety!) because there’s always a chance the cancer will return. For metastatic patients, there’s no moving on – ever. Cancer and its treatment will be part of their daily reality until they die. So no, don't ever, EVER say this one, EVER.

I know this is long, but I hope it helps.

If you don't know what to say, start with "I'm sorry to hear about your diagnosis. How are you doing?" and really mean it. Offer to do something, like take her to chemo, or bring them dinner. Ask what treatment is like and actually listen.

Just be her friend, like you always have been.

Written by April Sampson


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