10 Things NOT To Say To A Breast Cancer Patient
Being diagnosed with cancer is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
One minute you’re YOU – the person you’ve always known. A person with hopes, dreams and ‘to do’ lists.
But then the diagnosis arrives, and your world changes in a split second, it’s like someone just forced cotton wool into your head at warp speed, robbing your brain of its ability to think of ANYTHING else.
And it stays that way, for months.
Of course, it’s during those early weeks and days that you desperately need to be clear thinking – the instructions start coming at you thick and fast; do this, don’t do that, phone this number, visit this website.
It’s a time when the phrase “keep on keeping on” develops real meaning, and when every single facet of your life needs to be focused on doing the right things.
And whether they like it or not, the people that talk to you have an enormous responsibility during that time period too.
Sadly, they don’t always cut the mustard, and unfortunately, when they say the wrong things, it can have a massive impact on your wellbeing, your commitment and your confidence.
So, if you’re dealing with breast cancer, or you know someone who is, take a few minutes to digest ten of the worst possible things you can say to a breast cancer patient.
If you’re the patient, forward this to everyone you know; if you’re not, etch these things into your brain and give yourself the best chance of being the supportive influence your loved one needs.
- “Oh, my wife/cousin/best friend died of that”
I wish I was kidding, but I’m really not. During my own journey, people I spoke to told me frequently that they knew someone who had died of breast cancer.
And mine is not a special case – it’s a common thing said to many cancer patients.
Perhaps it’s an attempt to recognise the gravity of the situation and share in the pain of the patient. But whatever it is, and however it true it might be, it’s savage to hear.
When I heard it for the first time, within the first few weeks of my diagnosis, it brought me to my knees – I implore you, please banish this phrase (and variations of it) from your vocabulary.
Alternative: “I understand where you are, and I’m here”
- “It’s not all about you”
Once again, you might not believe that people say this, but they do, and not only is it a hurtful thing to say, but it’s also not true.
For the first time in your life, as a cancer patient, you DO need to make it all about you.
This isn’t a matter of selfishness, but a matter of self-preservation. It’s not that you don’t care about anyone else, but that you recognise that unless you care for yourself first, you can’t be well and share love and kindness with others.
So, if your friend is dealing with cancer, make it all about them. If you’re the patient, then don’t feel guilty – it’s exactly what you need to do.
Alternative: “Whatever you need to do, let me know how I can help”
- “I assume you’re eating better now?”
This comment or variations of it, are highly likely to be interpreted as a suggestion that they weren’t eating well before, and that their poor diet is what resulted in a cancer diagnosis in the first place.
It’s not helpful, and projects blame where blame has no place.
Instead of helping a patient to dig deep and feel supported, this comment does the opposite, by making them feel alone and like it’s their fault.
Alternative: “Are you able to eat at the moment?”
- “We are walking on eggshells”
A very common one, and another one that projects blame onto the patient by suggesting somehow that it’s their fault that conversation is hard right now.
You’re only walking on eggshells because YOU don’t know what to say. So take some time to understand what would be helpful to say, rather than placing the fault with the patient.
Not only is it unhelpful to make the patient culpable for you being unable to say the right things, but it also strengthens the idea that no one understands them, and that they really are all on their own in this situation.
Alternative: Speak to any cancer charity, and find out more about how to talk positively to cancer patients.
- “My wife died of that” – Part 2
As a cancer patient, tests, appointments and procedures become a part and parcel of your everyday life.
And at each point, the risk of “scanxiety” is very real – you’re always on high alert until your results come through and you need to deal with that’s in front of you.
Conversations around those scans need to be sensitive to this.
Telling your cancer friend that your wife/cousin/best friend got a clear scan but died two years later isn’t the most helpful of comments.
If you have experience of a close family member dying from cancer you most certainly have a wealth of experience at hand.
But it’s important to remember that no cancer journey is the same and drawing a correlation between a journey that ended in the worst way possible, and your cancer friend’s current journey is not positive or profitable.
When you have received a clear scan and you are ready to tentatively tiptoe to the next base, it’s quite unhelpful to hear ‘Oh yes, so did my wife and she died two years later’!
One story from my journey jumps out:
I had a conversation with a mother, whose daughter had died from breast cancer. She stood and celebrated my clear scan with me, and while I knew her daughter had also once had a clear scan, she never once made reference to it. Instead, she kept me uplifted in the conversation, which was such a massive conversation for us both to have. It left me in tears from the sensitivity of it, but with a heart full of love for this woman.
Alternative: “I’m so thrilled for you. I am still here to chat as you carry on with your recovery.”
- “My friend has that and she’s doing great”
It’s always fabulous to hear of people doing well.
Coming out the other side.
Smashing the odds.
But to a cancer friend, this sort of statement can seem disingenuous, and like you’re trying to belittle their struggle.
Willing someone to be better is a wonderful thing, but ignoring their reality because it isn’t what you wanted to hear is draining for them, especially if they’re really trying, but things aren’t working out.
And anyway, what exactly does your friend have? Because truthfully you don’t know. It’s hard enough to know what you have when you have it!
Alternative: “My friend/mother/cousin also has breast cancer and so I understand a little of the tough time you are having.”
- “Is it just breast cancer you have?”
Again, this belittles the problem massively, all because the person asking the questions wants to feel better about the true reality of the situation, and can leave the patient thinking, “Dear me! What else would you like me to have?!”
Alternative: “This is such a tough situation to find yourself in, I’m thinking of you and wishing you as easy a time as possible during treatment.”
- “You must stay positive”
Said with the very best of intentions, this almost always comes across as patronising, especially from someone who’s never been through what you’re going through.
If your cancer friend just isn’t able to feel positive at that moment in time, it places blame on them by suggesting that it’s never okay for them to feel a bit under par, even when they’re dealing with cancer.
It also suggests that positivity is the difference between a successful outcome and a negative one. It’s as if all the people who’ve died from cancer did so because they just weren’t positive enough.
When it comes to cancer diagnosis, keeping it real is the most helpful thing.
Just a little research and attention would enable you to listen and acknowledge to your cancer friend that this is a tough time right now. That’s OK. We all have tough times. But facing your friend’s reality with real, empathetic truth is much more helpful than all the meaningless platitudes in the world.
Some years ago I heard a speaker say “Positivity? It’s like putting sugar on a pile of dog doo and calling it a cake!” Explains the point nicely!!
Alternative: ‘You are going through it right now, I’m sorry about that’
- “I’m never having chemotherapy if I get it!”
Well, let’s hope you don’t get it then!
It wasn’t an easy decision for me to have chemo, but I made the decision after looking my children in the eyes and knowing that I needed to do everything I possibly could to get through this for them.
Remember that when people are making the choice of whether to have it or not, it’s a decision that’ll likely have huge consequences for their life; it’s not a trifling matter, and you can’t even begin to understand what it’s like to have to make that choice.
Alternative: “Whatever treatment you’re going through, whatever you need to do, I’ll be there for you”
- “You’ll be fine”
I’m a glass half full person, but the truth is that a banal, empty comment like this does nothing to help.
When you say this to someone, it’s unlikely you know anywhere near enough about their cancer to make that sort of statement.
Yes, of course, you want them to be fine, but that’s not the same as asserting that they will be fine as a fact.
In many cases, telling a cancer friend that they’ll be fine is a way to try and alleviate your own fear, but they don’t need that – they need you to be strong for them, and truthful too – truth breeds trust.
Alternative: “I can’t put myself in your shoes but I can hope that everything goes smoothly for you.”
So, what now?
The sad truth is that right now, these statements and questions are being spoken unwittingly, by friends and family who feel they’re doing the right thing.
But – as the saying goes – forewarned is forearmed – now you know, you can ensure you’re a force for good, rather than a source of fear, anxiety and sadness.
When my Oncologist signed me off; feeling I could continue with my recovery without his help, he was thrilled to hear about my change of work.
Supporting Breast Cancer patients by providing supportive inspirational messages, one a day for a year – a gift for a year, support for a lifetime.
He was delighted that I could advocate for people; both the patient and the friends and family who have no idea what to say. There are times, he said, when he didn’t know what to say either. Such a tough job.
Sometimes saying nothing, and listening, is better than leaving a trail of devastation.
If you don’t know what to do for someone going through the same, you are in often walked in shoes. That’s ok. You are not on your own. You will neither be the first or the last in this position. It is worth seeking out what to do, both for yourself and your loved one. There are plenty of cancer charities that will be prepared to help you.
Just recognising you are out of your depth and doing something about it is a fabulous thing. There are plenty of people willing to help you find your way. If you are a carer for someone with breast cancer why not Sign in to The 365 Hive | We’ve got you. Weekly support and events to connect you.
Deborah Fielding is a breast cancer survivor, award-winning mentor, writer and speaker. She has created 365 Days Of Breast Cancer to support others with the same.