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Things Not To Say to Someone With Breast Cancer

... And healthier words to use instead!


Updated February 15, 2013

Women Talking

Women Talking

Photo © Microsoft

Sooner or later, someone you care about will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The statistics still say that 1 in 8 women will develop this disease at some point in their life. So when that person close to you shares their diagnosis, what will you say? More importantly, what should you say? Many people may blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, but thoughtless comments can appear insensitive. Here's my list of 8 things you should not say to someone with breast cancer, and good words to use instead. Keep in mind though, that sometimes just a sympathetic silence will do.

8 Things NOT to Say

  1. "I know how you feel." On the surface, this sounds sympathetic, but it is tremendously halfhearted. This implies that you are the authority on the emotional storm that a newly diagnosed person is suffering through. That opening "I know" turns the attention back to You and demeans the experience of the person you may be trying to comfort. Perhaps you've had a similar diagnosis and you mean well - but each person has a unique situation and different challenges to overcome.
    Better Choice: How are you feeling? I'm here to listen. Hint: Be sure to shut up and let them talk it out.

  2. "Stay positive, and you can beat this." This is the myth of the Upbeat Patient Conquers All. While it may help smooth the way with doctors, nurses and technicians during treatment, a positive attitude makes no impression on cancer cells. Cancer does not care how perky anyone is acting - it just keeps behaving badly until it meets with a drug that kills it, or until it does some damage. Cancer treatment can be tough; so don't put a patient in the position of having to be constantly happy or hopeful. They will have days in which they feel exquisitely rotten. Respect that, please!
    Try Instead: No matter how you feel, we'll stick with you through this.

  3. "So, how long do you have left?" The only true answer to this one should be "Only God knows." The question implies that you see this person as having one foot in the grave and the other on a roller skate. Expect them to glide away and write you off as a supporter. Each case of cancer is different, but each patient should be treated with love and respect. Besides, Katherine Russell Rich lived with metastatic breast cancer for 23 years - she is an exception - but with improving treatments, maybe that will become the norm.
    Say This: Let's plan on enjoying some time together whenever you like.

  4. "My (mother, aunt, friend, enemy, coworker) had that and died from it." You might as well wear a T-shirt that says, "I Am The Prophet of Doom!" It may be true that other people you know had breast cancer and that they did, indeed, die from it. While truth in itself is a beautiful thing, talking this way to a patient fighting a life-threatening disease is just bad taste. This kind of statement implies that treatments are useless and suffering is pointless and that death, soon to conquer, is approaching without mercy. Please expect the patient to end their relationship with you quickly, while they move on to mix with more encouraging people.
    Smarter Words: There are almost 3 million breast cancer survivors in America and I want you to be one of them.

  5. "A year from now, you'll look back and laugh about this." A friend and fellow survivor said this to me when I was newly diagnosed. Laughter was the farthest thing from my mind. I was faced with surgery decisions and impending chemo - nothing funny there! I know this was meant to be encouraging, since my tumor was small and hadn't spread.
    Say Instead: A year from now, I hope we'll be celebrating your victory!

  6. "You're lucky - they caught it early!" You will get the award for Most Clueless if you say this to any cancer patient with any stage of cancer. Nobody who has cancer is considered lucky for having the disease. Patients may feel lucky about getting through treatments or finding the best doctor, but luck is not what determines who gets cancer. Do you want to have the same luck?
    Clue In: You can call me anytime you want to talk to someone.

  7. "Are you bald yet?" Asking this question out in public is a speedy way to lose a friend. One lady in my support group asked me this the first time I showed up in a wig. She asked it loudly, in a hospital atrium. I had just lost my waist-length hair and was very sick after chemo, so all I could do was to mumble and hope for the ceiling to fall down on me. She still had her hair, I had lost mine. Do not rub it in - hair loss is traumatic for some of us.
    Better Comment: I like your new look, how do you like it?

  8. "Which breast did you lose?" This is a special class of tacky question. If you're asking this, then you might also ask a man which of his testicles were cut off. You may even be guilty of inquiring why certain people can't or don't have children. The intensely personal nature of questions like this has a vulture-like feel, with a gloss of superiority. It is never your business to know these details, unless the patient volunteers the information. If you are told the details about the surgery, then don't repeat that to other people. Let the patient - the person most affected - choose what details, and who to share them with.
    More Tactful: How is your recovery going? What evening may I bring over supper?

If you've been rude and spoken without compassion or forethought, please don't be surprised if a patient or their supporters gives you a sample of their snappy comebacks. Apologize as soon as you have the chance, and please be more sensitve and respectful. After all, illness is a part of the human condition, and you may someday need to be treated gently, too!

For more advice on awkward moments, try: What Not to Say About Health Issues - Tips for Talking to Friends and Family

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Breast Cancer
  4. Life During Treatment
  5. Dealing With Emotions
  6. Things Not To Say to Someone With Breast Cancer

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