Shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, an old friend who also had breast cancer contacted me to offer advice and support. She ended the message with this forewarning: “Get ready. You will not believe some of the things people are going to say to you.” I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but I certainly know now. Although you may have the very best of intentions, please avoid these phrases when a friend or loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer.
- “Hey, free boob job!”
I got this one a lot. I smiled and fake-laughed every time, but it’s not really funny. There’s a big difference between a “boob job” and reconstruction after a mastectomy. A mastectomy is a major surgical procedure that removes all of the breast tissue, and many women also undergo chemo and/or radiation that further destroys their skin… and THEN they undergo reconstruction using implants, relocated muscles or other materials. It’s not Hollywood star-type plastic surgery by any means, so please use caution with this particular joke.
Instead, consider this: “I am so sorry that you have to go through this.”
- “You’ve been given such a precious gift.”
Ironically, not a single person who actually HAD cancer said this to me.
Everyone loves a story of a cancer patient who recovered, overhauled their entire life and is now so thankful for the experience. It does turn out this way for some people, usually when the experience is behind them. But here’s one of cancer’s dirty little secrets: a whole lot of us are NOT grateful that this happened to us and our families, nor will we ever be. And that’s okay.
What I WAS feeling (and still feel a lot of) was anger, fear and confusion. Please allow people with cancer to express these emotions, for as long as necessary, instead of insisting on how “lucky” we are and how “amazing” this experience will be. It might turn out that way eventually, or it might not. There’s no way to know during those first few weeks, so please let us work through whatever feelings we are having in our own time.
Instead, consider this: “How do you feel? You can be completely honest with me.”
- “I bet this is all a mistake. They told my nephew’s neighbor’s cousin that she had lupus, but she really didn’t.”
Believe me, I wanted this to be a mistake more than anything. But it wasn’t. Promoting extremely unlikely scenarios that happened to far-off people just strung me along, instead of helping me to accept reality and brace myself for the road ahead.
Instead, consider this: “I wish things were different.”
- “Just think positive. At least you haven’t been captured as a prisoner of war and tortured like that guy in the Unbroken movie.”
Please refrain from making comparisons, especially about the depth of someone else’s suffering. Yes, I knew that it could have been worse. Yes, I have seen people whose ultimate outcome has not been as positive as mine. But I was certainly entitled to feel less than brave or confident once in a while, especially during those first few weeks.
Instead, consider this: “This must be so difficult, but you will get through it.”
- “Here’s the names and mailing addresses of 28 people in my church who I asked to pray for you. Will you send each of them a thank-you note?”
Disclaimer: I am immensely thankful for every selfless gesture, gift, prayer and positive thought that came my way. My family and I were touched by each and every one, and I am sure that we couldn’t have made it through without them. We could spend a dozen lifetimes trying to repay these kindnesses, and it still wouldn’t be enough. We are so very, very grateful.
With that said, in times of illness or other hardship, please throw your expectations regarding etiquette out the window. This isn’t a wedding, where I have 3 months to send a formal card thanking you for your purchase off my online registry at Bed, Bath & Beyond. If you choose to do an act of kindness, please let it be just that – don’t do it for any other reason that you want to help my family out or cheer me up. I did want to thank everyone properly, but a hug at the door or a group email message was all that I could muster for a long time. So please don’t keep score.
Instead, consider this (if you still truly believe that individual formal thank-you notes are mandatory): “How about I help you tackle some thank-you notes?”
- “The person everyone should really feel sorry for is [your healthy sibling]. She’s not getting any attention these days.”
Yep, really. After almost 2 years, I still can’t come up with any sort of commentary or witty comeback to this one. At least not one that could be published on a family-friendly Moms Blog.
Instead, consider this: “How is your family holding up?”
There are still people in my life, including direct family members, who have never acknowledged that I had cancer. They are definitely aware, but repeatedly choose not to say anything at all. Honestly, I’d rather have any of the previous 6 things said to me again than deal with someone treating me and my family like lepers. It may be that these people are shy, or uncomfortable, or unsure of what to say… but whatever the reason, their silence demonstrated that they couldn’t be counted on when we needed them most. And frankly, our relationships will never be the same.
Instead, consider this: “I don’t know what to say. But I am here for you.”
So what exactly should you say or do when a friend gets breast cancer? In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the helpful words and thoughtful gestures that carried my family through this difficult time.