Let’s face it. We have all known someone who’s had cancer. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate between income, gender, race or age. It doesn’t care if you’re a good person or not. It doesn’t care about anything except trying to ruin your life. It sucks having cancer. It sucks for the person dealing with it and it sucks for the family and friends who have to witness it. Before I was diagnosed I was like a lot of people. You meet someone who has it and you don’t know what to say. You feel awkward. You want to say the right thing but sometimes the words that come out are not really what the person needs or wants to hear.
Having cancer is traumatic. Even if like me I was able to rid my body of the disease by removing my breasts. That in itself is traumatic. I may not “have” cancer anymore but I am certainly dealing with all the ramifications of it. So saying to me “why do you talk so much about cancer when you don’t have it” isn’t really accurate and it certainly isn’t helpful. That said…here are some other doozies that you probably shouldn’t say to someone with breast cancer…but they’ve been said to me.
1. “Well at least breast cancer is an easy cancer.”
Really? Easy you say? Not all breast cancers are the same. Some people have to battle it for years and they don’t survive. My mother had two surgeries and a year of chemo and radiation. I have met women at the hospital who have wasted away to mere skeletons from so many treatments. There is nothing easy about cancer…no matter what kind you have and by saying that, you make the person feel like they shouldn’t feel scared or upset with the diagnosis that they have been given. Breast cancer is no easier than any other cancer. All cancers are hard.
2. “Everything happens for a reason.”
What fu#king reason could there be for someone to get cancer? Sorry, but I don’t buy that for one second. And don’t say “you’re not given more than you can handle” because who is deciding how much I can handle? Whoever that is, apparently wasn’t watching during my debilitating panic attacks, or the nights I was in so much pain I didn’t know how I’d make it til morning.
3. “I read that drinking alcohol and eating red meat causes cancer.”
So I did this to myself? I had one too many filet mignon’s in my life that I washed down with a glass of wine ( which was delicious by the way). Even if I was a total glutton, saying something like that is not comforting. It’s not going to change the situation. I know people who are the epitome of “good health” and have had cancer. There are athletes who have had cancer…remember Lance Armstrong, Scott Hamilton, Martina Navratilova?!
4. “I know someone who had cancer…”
Not every cancer is the same and certainly everyone’s story and treatment is different. Just because you know someone who had colon cancer doesn’t make a breast cancer patient feel any better. Now, if you know someone who has breast cancer by all means share what you know…unless they died, then maybe keep that to yourself. Also, please remember that some people who have just been diagnosed are not ready to hear about your friend who did this and that…the news is still too raw. Please respect that and be there to share when and if they are ready to listen.
5. OMG will you lose your hair?!”
What if I did? Trust me, there are so many things more important than hair. And it does grow back. My Mom lost all hair and she rocked kerchiefs and hats and looked stunning. Her hair grew back and she is as beautiful now as she ever was. Now, someone did also say to me that ” Well if you lose all your hair you won’t have to shave your legs.” Yes, I guess that’s a bonus, but not really a good enough reason to want to lose all my hair. But a nice thought I guess?
6. “Do you REALLY have to have BOTH breasts removed?”
This is a question that really puzzled me. Would you like me better if I only had one removed? I never really understood the reason for this question. It was my surgical oncologist that suggested, even though I had already thought of it, to remove both breasts to ensure that the cancer that had engulfed my left breast didn’t spread to the right. I did not want to live in fear that I would get breast cancer again and I certainly didn’t want to go through a second surgery, recovery and reconstruction. What I am going through now is bad enough let alone if I had to do it twice! Losing my breasts has been traumatic. Breasts are our societies sign of femininity. Women have breasts, men don’t. I have struggled with my body image since my mastectomy and I probably will for a very long time. Removing my breasts was what I needed to do to beat cancer, but it was not easy no matter how happy I am that all the cancer was removed.
7. “I didn’t come see you because I didn’t want to bother you.”
Having and recovering from cancer is very isolating. I spent months home alone recovering. Other than doctor’s appointments and treatments sometimes days and days would go by without seeing anyone. Yes, the first few weeks home from the hospital I could only handle short visits from people…but the visits meant the world to me. Unfortunately they were few and far between. If you don’t want to “bother” the person recovering, then don’t stay long, or ask when would be a good time to come by. Drop off a casserole or a good book or some fresh fruit. Call and say you’re coming over for an evening of Netflix and a bottle of wine. ( Since I already had cancer I can drink the wine that gave it me! Sorry was that too harsh?) Instead of asking “what do you need” just DO something…anything. I know I have felt so overwhelmed with everything some days that I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I needed even if I knew what that was. Friendship, company, someone to laugh with…anything. Trust me, recovering from cancer takes a lot out of person, so having support from friends is really important and very much appreciated.
8. “But you don’t look sick.”
I guess I’m just making this up for attention?! How about rephrasing that statement by saying “You look great.” A slight change of phrase can make all the difference to someone struggling with having been told they have cancer, have had a double mastectomy, who are in pain and struggling with a body that is completely unrecognizable to them. Hearing you look good helps boost the spirits…trust me, you can’t hear it enough!
9. “Well it could be worse.”
Yes you’re right. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow ( that was said to me too!) So I guess I shouldn’t be upset or worried or be stressed about my diagnosis, surgery and my mortality. When you are told you have cancer you feel that the “worst” has happened. At least for a fleeting moment…but probably longer than that. I am one of the blessed ones whose cancer was removed with my surgery but leading up to my mastectomy and the weeks of waiting for the pathology reports were some of the hardest days of my life. Not just for me but for my family. Thinking about your own death and what will my family do without me is a gut wrenching scenario. At that stage in your mind “nothing could be worse.”
….And now for the piece de resistance …..
10. “Well at least you get a free boob job.”
I have heard this sooooooo many times! Once and for all, breast augmentation or a “boob job” is NOT the same as breast reconstruction. Augmentation is something you choose to do. It is not the same as having all of your breast tissue removed from your sternum to under your arms leaving twelve inch scars on both sides. It is not the same as having tissue expanders inserted that are very painful…in fact, excruciating at times. The process lasts months and months and months and then you undergo another major surgery to have the expanders removed and the implants put in. You lose almost all sensation in chest, you have huge ugly scars that will never go away and you have no nipples left. Trust me, no one would choose this kind of “boob job” EVER, so please understand the difference because they couldn’t be more different.
I know that some of my comments may sound harsh, and perhaps they are. But I want to be honest with you all and I want to save people from saying the wrong thing. I know everyone has the best intentions and I probably have made a faux pas or two before I was put on the receiving line of silly comments after my diagnosis. I hold no ill will. In fact I have had a good laugh at a lot of the things people have said. We are all on a journey together and are learning the do’s and don’ts of dealing with breast cancer. Sometimes it’s what we say and do that makes the biggest impact. Maybe I am just being a “silly boob”. Oh, dear, can I call myself that or is it politically incorrect to call someone whose had a mastectomy a “boob”. See, it’s not easy for any of us!
President of As You Like It Marketing & Communications Inc. Award winning speaker and author. Breast cancer fighter and blogger. I’m sharing my journey…the good, the bad and the ugly. Hoping to help anyone else that has been touched by breast cancer be it you or someone you know or love.