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What to Say (or Not Say) to a Woman with Breast Cancer

April 4, 2019

When we find out someone near and dear to us has breast cancer, it’s only natural to feel sad, scared and anxious. For many of us, the tough news can make us feel helpless and at a loss for words. Even when we have the best of intentions, it's easy to have a ‘slip-of-the-tongue' moment and blurt out something inadvertent or inappropriate that makes that person feel worse. To better understand how to speak with more empathy and compassion, and to avoid making someone feel hurt or alienated, we asked a handful of breast cancer survivors and patients what one should or shouldn't say to someone recently diagnosed. Read on to hear their thoughts.  

Things to NOT say to some with breast cancer

Don’t say: “I’m sorry.”

A common, initial response when someone breaks the news to you is, “I’m sorry.” But to be honest, one of the last things a woman who has been recently diagnosed with cancer wants or needs is pity. She is facing enough of her own emotions, and it’s not helpful to present her with yours. Instead, try to be the support she needs. Be an ambassador of hope and try to shed some normalcy in her life. Laugh a little. Be the friend you’ve always been to her – she may need a break from cancer.

Don’t say: “Let me know if you need anything.”

In general, it’s hard for people to ask for help, even if we really need it. And in the face of cancer, your loved one will definitely need it! Instead of making an empty offer of assistance or waiting for her to reach out with a request, go ahead and take the initiative. Bring over some meals. Drive her to a few appointments. Offer to watch her children or care for her pets. Give her something concrete that you know she needs and also, saves her the effort and discomfort of having to ask.

Don’t say: “My friend had breast cancer, but now she’s fine.”

Everyone’s experience is different. There are many types of breast cancer, surgeries and treatments, and each woman has a unique response to them. Keep other peoples’ stories to yourself unless a friend specifically asks, as you don’t want to give false hope or make her feel bad if she is struggling more than someone else. Your friend will likely walk a different path from others you’ve known to walk it prior. Allow it to be uniquely hers and stay in the present moment with her.

Don’t' say: “It’s just hair!”

When your friend or loved one starts losing her hair, don’t make her feel like it’s not a big deal. In fact, for most, it’s the biggest deal of all, as it’s a visible sign of illness that most prefer to keep private. When a woman is forced to lose her breasts and/or hair, she is losing aspects of her femininity and sense of self. Figuring out a new look that feels comfortable, amidst the emotional and physical toll of illness, can be extremely difficult. Take her wig shopping or gift her a pretty scarf. If you haven’t been through cancer and find it hard to relate, offer a few words such as, “I can't imagine how hard it must be to lose your hair, but know that I’m here to talk about it whenever you need me.”

Don’t say: “You should try eating this way, fasting, talking to a healer, going to yoga, etc.”

There are many alternative paths one can traverse when it comes to health and breast cancer, but we have to remember that not everyone is willing to try these therapies, much less afford them. Suggesting a new treatment or modality that someone may or may not be open to may make them feel as though they aren’t doing enough or trying hard enough to heal. And many times, one can’t handle any other treatments or tasks than what they’re already facing. If you passionately believe in a certain remedy, try using an open-ended approach or prefacing your thoughts in such a way that simply shares knowledge. Remember, you are not an expert. She knows her body better than anyone else, and it’s important for her to feel as empowered and strong as possible, in whatever treatments she encounters.  

Don’t' say: “Don’t worry, you’ll be ok”

Don’t dismiss a person’s right to feel completely freaked out. And don’t make false promises. In fact, saying “You’ll be ok” is usually more about the person saying it than the one receiving. Your friend or loved one will have many moments of not feeling ok. Allow her to be real with you, make space for the fear, and encourage her to feel through all the phases of mourning and loss. You can also offer hope when she needs it by reminding her of silver linings that can arise through the #BEAUTYOFCHANGE.

Things to say to someone with breast cancer

Do say: “I love you.”

Something as simple as these three words, “I love you” can be all that someone needs to hear. It’s that easy. Send a text, call her up, and tell her you’re thinking about how much you love her. Feeling loved is an immense source of strength.

Do say: “I’m here for you.”

If you really want to do something meaningful, be there and show up. Be your friend or loved one’s biggest supporter by helping out wherever you can. Little things mean a lot, especially when they’re offered frequently and consistently.

Do say: “You’re strong. You’re a fighter. You’re going to beat this!”

Be positive and encouraging. Cancer is one of the hardest battles we fight, so try to give your thriver faith and courage to face the fight head on. Remind her of other challenges she’s surmounted and encourage her to believe in her own inner power.

Do say: “F*CK Cancer!”

Sometimes, we just have to keep it real. Cancer sucks. Period. Sharing the anger or frustration or fear that someone else is experiencing can help her feel less alone on the journey.

Do say: “Where do we start? We’re in this together.”

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the world becomes very focused and small. Encourage your loved one to create a cancer tribe by reaching out to other women who have been through it. Assemble a group of people to chip in with meals, kid pickups, or rides to doctor’s visits. Using the pronoun “we” instead of “you” will help her remember that she has support around her and that she is surrounded by love and care.

Do say: "I can’t imagine how you must feel, but I’m always here to listen.”

It’s only natural to want to know all the details, but she is being inundated by questions from every angle. Accept what she’s sharing with you, lend an ear and a shoulder to cry on, if need be, but don’t push her to share more than she’s ready for. Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Keep your needs out of the conversation and focus entirely on her.

“Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” Oprah Winfrey