Breast cancer can be one of the most harrowing ordeals someone can go through, and yet many fighters report friends or loved ones disappearing from their lives, just when they are most needed.
“It’s normal for people to avoid things that make them uncomfortable and cancer can definitely do that,” says Ginger Johnson, a survivor and founder of HappyChemo.com.
But, this is an opportunity to connect with and help your friend or loved one, even if you don’t know the perfect thing to say. “Just think before you speak and keep the questions or comments focused on helping them — not about you or your life experiences,” Ginger advises.
Don’t say: “How are you doing?”
Instead try: “Want to grab a coffee and chat?”
Don’t say: “You don’t look sick.”
“I really am sick and I know that I actually do look sick most of the time,” Mary Smith, a survivor of over five years, says. Plus, the implication is either that you think they are lying about having cancer or you think they are getting the secret, easy treatments no one knows about. Instead, Mary says she appreciated any comment about her body that wasn’t related to the cancer.
Instead try: “You have gorgeous eyes.”
Don’t say: “My aunt/sister/friend had stage 4 cancer and lived.”
“Every cancer, like every person, is different and having your cancer compared to someone else’s sucks,” Jen Embry, a three-year survivor, says. “Hearing how someone had a 99 percent chance of survival and didn’t make it is not what we want to hear right now.” Also, breast cancer doesn’t refer to one uniform illness, but rather there are four main types with a dozen rarer varieties, each with their own prognosis and treatments.
Instead try: “If you want to talk about it, I’d love to hear about your diagnosis.” (Take care though, as several women said they hated talking about their cancer, so if the person doesn’t want to answer, don’t force it.)
Don’t say: “Do you miss your breast(s)? Does it feel weird only having one?”
“Of course it feels weird!” Rosemary Meier, who had cancer in her 20’s, says. You know what else feels weird? This question. Losing part or all of their breasts can be different for each person, but for many women it’s intensely emotional and painful.
Instead try: Nothing. It’s not cool to ask anyone about their breasts and having breast cancer doesn’t change that. If they bring it up, then go ahead, but let them talk about it first.
Don’t say: “I just know that you are going to be fine.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Mary asks. “I don’t know that. My doctors don’t even know that.”
Instead try: “You are strong and tough and smart.” Mary says she loved any encouragement to fight the cancer, but at the same time, she also loved it when people gave her permission to not have to be brave or strong all the time.
Don’t say: “Don’t cry, God only gives you what he knows you can handle.”
“I cried not because of my situation, but because I was in pain,” Estella Cardoza, a five-year survivor, says simply. Bringing up religion as a way to dismiss their suffering is never kind. Plus, as Jess Hodgson, who is currently battling her second round of cancer, explains, it can make you angry. “You think God can let up and give me a break already?” Because religion is such a personal subject, wait for them to bring it up if they want to.
Instead try: “This totally sucks! It’s OK to cry.” That helped Mary. Or, Jess suggests something more general like, “I’m praying for you.” Or, “I’d like to put your name on the prayer list at my church — is that OK?”
Don’t say: “Did you get a second opinion?” Or, “Have you tried this diet?”
“No, I just cut off my boobs and am going to poison myself six times over the next four months without ever double checking to see if there are other options,” Mary says sarcastically. Unless you actually are the person’s doctor, any medical opinions or advice should be left alone.
Instead try: “I’m so glad that you have a great team of doctors to help you through this.”
Don’t say: “Why don’t you wear a wig instead of a scarf?” Or, “Well I guess you don’t have to shampoo your hair anymore!”
Estella explains that for her losing her hair was the most emotional part of her treatment and that comments about their hair or lack of it were painful. Plus, she says wigs are a lot more uncomfortable than people think and when you’re already in pain adding one more level of discomfort just doesn’t feel worth it.
Instead try: “You look radiant, I love that color on you.” Jess adds she loved it when people said: “Your bald head is beautiful!”
Don’t say: “Let me know if you need any help.”
“Yes, I’m going to need help. But it’s really difficult for anyone, let alone cancer patients, to admit that,” Jen explains. It’s much more meaningful if you think of a specific way and time you can help.
Instead try: “Can I make you dinner on Tuesday?” Or, “Can I help with your laundry this weekend?” Or, “Can I watch your kids, so you can take a nap?”
Don’t say: “What’s wrong with you?!”
“My mom didn’t make it,” explains Lindsey Lynch, “but while she was sick, she didn’t want to talk about it at all. She had lymphedema and her arm was really swollen. She hated it when people asked what had happened to her arm, especially strangers.”
Instead try: Nothing. If you’re a stranger, you needn’t comment on anyone’s appearance. And if you’re a friend, then simply let them know you would love to listen if they want to talk. Lindsey adds that if you do bring up their illness, be understanding if they don’t want to talk or even if they get angry with you.
Don’t say: Anything that starts with, “At least….”
“At least it’s curable.” Or, “at least it’s not as bad as it could be.” So what if it isn’t the worst-case scenario? Saying what something isn’t doesn’t change the reality of what it is — and that reality can be very terrifying, says Mandy Powell, a three-year survivor.
Instead try: “Cancer is really going to regret messing with you.”
Don’t say: “But, you’re not a woman.”
It’s much more rare — men make up about one percent of breast cancer cases — but they can get breast cancer. And as Joshua Anderson, currently suffering with the disease, points out, when people think of it as only a “woman’s disease,” it makes it that much harder on male sufferers to talk about it and get the support they need.
Instead try: “I’m so sorry, that must be scary. How are you feeling?”