What to say — and not say — when a friend tells you, 'I have breast cancer'

A few phrases to avoid when a friend tells you, "I have breast cancer." (Illustration: Nathalie Gonzalez for Yahoo Lifestyle)
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Yahoo Life is republishing this story to help raise awareness among those affected by the disease. It was originally released on October 7, 2019.
The worst reaction I got when I shared the news about my breast cancer diagnosis and the upcoming double mastectomy last year was from a neighbor who wrote me this uncomfortable but well-intentioned flub, "Well, at least you'll look even thinner now!"
It's been just an amusing anecdote since then - a faint background noise that filters out the many supportive, loving responses I prefer to focus on.
Some of the best: The friend who called me or texted me every day to check in, even if it was just a heart emoji; the one who said, "This annoys me and makes me angry"; the one who left homemade hummus with warm bread on my doorstep when I got home from surgery, starved; The one who promptly organized an online food train without ever being asked and the many who signed up and delivered our family such thoughtful, delicious dinners that the memory of them still makes me tear apart with gratitude.
And then there was the friend who lived a few states away and just a few years after her own double mastectomy came to town without being asked and spent the day with our then 9-year-old daughter - to distract her, to pamper her and to take care of her while I went to my first very nerve-wracking appointment after the operation.
How did everyone know what to do? Sometimes it came naturally; sometimes the knowledge was hard earned. In other cases they would ask, "What can I do?" And I sort of figured out what to tell them
But it's not always that easy for people in the midst of a crisis to say what they need - or even to know.
"Chances are, every woman talks about it at some point in her cancer treatment," said Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, which specializes in women with breast cancer. "I think the offer to help is a declaration of love and affection - so take the affection - and know that it's okay to say, 'This is way too much,' and, 'I don't even know what I am need.' ”
Massie adds that in a crisis like breast cancer, many people learn what their friends are really made of. “Sometimes the people we thought were on the sidelines for us turn out to be the nicest, most helpful, and thoughtful - and our so-called friends are the people who say, 'If you need something, I'm totally there for it You call me day or night but then they are never available when it matters.
Some women fear these disappearances so much that they choose to keep news of their diagnosis to themselves. "They say," I understand if I don't tell people that I'm not getting any support - but if I do, I have to risk being very disappointed in them, "says Massie.
According to the book How to Be a Friend of a Sick Friend, longtime writer and activist (and founding editor of Ms. Magazine) Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote after her own battle with breast cancer and knew how to be a good friend in difficult times when times aren't always instinctive.
"I'm sure you already know how to be friends when it comes to catching up at lunch, sitting next to each other at a ball game, or texting each other over a movie," she wrote. “But when a buddy or a loved one gets stuck physically or mentally - when he limps or hurts, when your role in the relationship is no longer easy or obvious, when your interests and your exchanges are not entirely reciprocal and when you meet once Conversation Easily Tips for Crisis and Pain Issues - You may need to find new ways to be together, new ways to be helpful, and new words to keep things real. "
For more specific information in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I decided to read a page from Pogrebin's book by crowdsourcing to get advice from women who have gone through it - both friends and from Acquaintances and women in private Facebook self-help groups I am part of what to say and do (or not) when a friend tells you she has breast cancer.
But try to think of the nuggets of wisdom below as suggestions - not edicts or threats to silence you. After all, everyone is different and most people just want to know that you are there and that you care. One survivor told me, “Personally, I worry that the more 'instructions' we are giving people about what not to say will keep them from saying something. And that's the worst thing you can do. "
That brings us to our # 1 advice ...
Don't go away
It seems easy. But perhaps the most common request from women I have spoken to not to go away has been - something many people seem to have experienced while sharing their diagnoses with others (myself included). Sometimes it's because they don't know what to say. Sometimes it's because a friend's cancer is severe for them - whether they've had it before with a relative or just doesn't have the constitution needed to be a support system.
"I apologize for saying the wrong thing - my situation is bad and I wouldn't even know what to say to myself," remarked one woman. "What I can't excuse is the disappearance that many friends do when they are diagnosed with cancer."
One of the best things to do when a friend is going through treatment is just to keep in touch. "Just a quick, regular check-in to a text message -" Hello, how are you? "And" I only think of you "- it can do so much," remarked one woman. "If you want to answer, you can. If you don't, you still know they took enough care of the check-in." "Another survivor added," Send notes and encouragement to let me know that I will not be forgotten. It's a lonely battle. "
As for the one who has breast cancer, Massie suggests trying to understand even to badly behaved friends, however difficult it may be.
Plato said, 'Be nice, everyone is fighting hard. 'So it's pretty easy to say that this damn friend just walked away. I don't know why she left. I thought I knew her, but I don't think so. "We mortals have reasons for what we do and what we don't do," she explains, "and sometimes we just can't do it." So try to think of it as a lesson, suggesting who you can count on and who you cannot.
Don't say, "At least you'll get a great boob job!"
Other despised variations: "Oooh free boob job!" "Well, at least you'll have great new boobs!" "You can be topless on the beach with your new breasts!"
A friend told me, "Although I've laughed at some breast jokes and made a few myself to relieve some pressure, a mastectomy is not a breast job." She pointed out that it is "a" much more painful process that is very different End results "is, for example, a great loss of feeling. "Besides," she said, "I didn't choose it like I did with people undergoing plastic surgery."
Another woman commented, "I would love to keep my sagging breasts, which fed and helped my children in other ways than getting a tit job. I never wanted one. I was happy with my breasts."
Others reject questions like "How big will your new ones be?" that come with the assumption that if many women actually choose to walk flat, they will be rebuilt. And if you do, there are a number of new unwanted comments that may follow, such as "Aren't you making a mistake?" or "But how does your husband feel about it?" or "Of course you want to rebuild - you are not old and you can still feel like a woman!" When this woman replied to her breast surgeon, "I'm 58 and I still feel like a woman."
Remember not to imply a mistake: "What do you think caused it?" or treatment options
"Wow, guess the vegan thing didn't work out that well, right?" was another notable comment I received. It meant that I was a fool, and maybe even somehow to blame, for getting breast cancer despite my healthy lifestyle.
Another survivor said of these types of comments, "I understand very well that people need to find a cause in order to feel safe that it is not happening to them." I also did research to see if I brought this myself and found it to be a sterile and self-shameful process in the end. "She also said," In the end, what caused my cancer might not be what caused someone else's. "
Not helpful either, says Massie, referring to what she often hears from her therapy patients. After choosing a doctor or a method of treatment, it can be said that there is a much better way. Someone who says, 'Why should you go there? You have to see my doctor. In fact, I called and made an appointment for you. That does not work. If your friend calls about a diagnosis and says, "I am clueless, can you give me your doctor's name, please?", That's a whole different story. "
Don't be like "Oh, my [mom, sister, aunt, etc] died of breast cancer"
It really is the opposite of comforting as you grapple with the shock of the diagnosis of hearing from someone you knew who was killed by the same disease.
Avoid platitudes
Examples of well-meaning, but often incredibly meaningless, clichés: “Everything happens for a reason.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.” “Just be glad it isn't worse.” “What doesn't kill you make you stronger. "Also, some women are told," You will be fine "or" You will not die, "because how can anyone know? Some survivors have a specific vitriol for each" warrior "or" fight "conversation, like" You're so strong! “You can fight it!” What if I'm not strong? Yes, I can fight it, ”remarked one woman. "But what if I need to feel like I'm not strong, at least for a moment?"
Be a good listener
"More important than what you say," one woman told me, "is that you are willing to listen." And listening, especially to details, can sometimes help you provide specific follow-up help. "The best response," another woman told me, "was my friend who only called every now and then and asked how the chemotherapy was treating me (which means that she made a note of when my treatments were and kept track of them ) and who took me to lunch or. " Coffee and just let me talk, about cancer or anything else. "
Another commented, "I found it very therapeutic to talk about the whole process and friends who patiently got bored with me and listened to the details of my lab results and surgical options were most helpful."
If it doesn't feel too intrusive, ask questions. “I love when people ask me specific questions about my treatment - how many IVs do you need? What kind of chemo is it? Do you have any side effects? Even if they don't know anything about cancer, it helps to talk about it clinically and to take away some of the awkwardness and "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry for you," shares a survivor. "I don't want pity I like to talk about the productive things we do to fight it. "
Just show yourself
Finally, one woman suggested, “Don't ask if you can help, just do something nice. Most people don't know how to ask for help or what to need. But everything you do is appreciated. Send one pretty plant with a nice note. "
Some other specific, popular examples of how to just show up:
• "Ask:" Do you have favorite soup recipes? "Then make a batch."
• Say: I love you. I am here for the long term. "
• "[A friend] took me to the surgeon to help me understand and was open and honest about what was going to happen."
• Say: I support you and your decisions. Can i bring you dinner Can i take you to the store Can i clean your floors Do you need anything How are you? How are the kids and my husband? Do you need something? "
• “I have a friend who every now and then sends a card with $ 20 or $ 40. No mandate, just money and love. It allows me to go out to lunch with a friend and take a child out to enjoy without feeling like it is affecting the family budget. It doesn't wait for me to ask for help, but neither is it overly intrusive. "
• "Go with me to choose a wig and be honest and have fun."
• "I'm stopping by a restaurant, what do you want?" Contrasted with "Let me know if I can help."
• "Someone who is a good administrator comes in and ... organizes the delivery of food."
• "Say," I'll pick up your children and take them to school ... "and then do that."
• “The best advice I got was, 'This is a short season. 'It helped me repeat it and know that there would be an end. I know not all cancer patients can say this, but it became a mantra for me. Also "your body is beautiful no matter what". Whenever a nervous, negative comment came up about my body, this was my mantra. "
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
Beyoncé's Father Mathew Knowles Has Breast Cancer: Here's What You Need To Know About The Disease In Men
Male breast cancer survivors on why men fear an "emasculating" diagnosis
Why Some Breast Cancer Survivors Have Their Implants Removed
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