10 Things NOT To Say To A Breast Cancer Patient
Being diagnosed with any form of cancer is a mind swipe of the largest order.
It’s weird because one minute you are you, the you that you are used to. The very one that got up and got dressed that morning, just like normal. A ‘To Do’ list ready for action. Dreams that were bursting to be made.
When you are told, you have cancer, it’s like someone has just forced cotton wool into your head at warp speed; dulling down any words being spoken and leaving no space for any other thought to emerge. Of any description. And that’s the way it stays. For months.
Of course, it is precisely at this point that you need to be clear thinking. The instructions come at you so fast that you need to advocate for yourself. (Especially if you have gone on your own because you simply didn’t think there was a thing wrong!) You need to be making decisions, not being shoved along on the conveyor belt.
You are vulnerable. Your brain has been hijacked. Life is never the same again.
You may decide to tell everyone immediately or hold fire because you need more time. You know all hell is going to break loose, and sometimes, it is just nice to hold the calm a little bit longer in your hands. Keep a hold of the normality and the old you. Just a while longer.
The one thing that you don’t take into account, on this trip of your life, are the mad things that people will say to you. It’s why I chose to make the gift 365 Days of Breast Cancer, to help with a conversation that you can’t possibly understand if you haven’t experienced cancer yourself. Of every cancer patient I have spoken to, and that is a lot this past 18 months, there is a familiar occurrence of loose comments (I even made several messages about it in 365 Days of Breast Cancer). It’s like a switch. When the ‘On’ light comes on, here, and in no particular order, are some of the most common and quite frankly horrendous things that come out…
- “Oh, my wife/cousin/best friend died of that”
Seriously? How many people I spoke to that told me of someone dying from breast cancer. I wasn’t on my own with that either. It’s a common thing said to many cancer patients. It’s a kind of aligning yourself with the person to stand with them. But hell, it’s savage to hear, even though we know it happens. This brought me to my knees when it was said to me within the first few weeks of my diagnosis and not being sure of where I was heading… A simple I understand where you are, may have been more appropriate.
- It’s not all about you
For the first time in your life, you find you must shut out all the peripheral nonsense and focus on yourself. It’s vital. This isn’t in a selfish way. Kindness and love and wanting to be there for others still reside in you. A harsh comment like this leaves you reeling and the ramifications are immense. For your cancer friend, make it all about them. They will always want to be in your corner too at the first sign of having some space in their cotton wool over-filled head.
- I assume you’re eating better now?
Like you weren’t before, and that being the reason you got a cancer diagnosis in the first place. Of course, it makes people around you fearful for their own health. We’ve all gone through that concern at some point. But taking the moral high ground is your fear and not the person diagnosed with cancer. At a time when you need to dig deep and find support and kind things to say, ‘are you even able to eat?’ might be a more guided comment.
- We are walking on eggshells
‘We’ are walking on eggshells – because you don’t know what to say. The cancer patient doesn’t know what to do for themselves either, and from the minute they are diagnosed they are isolated in such a flung-out way. All of a sudden nobody understands them, and friends and family have no idea what to say to them. If you find you are walking on eggshells, unsure of what to say, find out! Call MacMillan or any other cancer charity and have a chat with them. Don’t make it the cancer patients fault.
- My wife died of that – Part 2
There are many tests and appointments you have when you are working through cancer. On scan day, you might be prone to a bout of ‘scanxiety’. It puts you on high alert until your results come through when you must deal with what’s in front of you. Telling your cancer friend that your wife/cousin/best friend got a clear scan but died two years later isn’t the most helpful of comments. If you have experience of a close family member dying from cancer you most certainly have a wealth of experience at hand. (And I’m sorry for anybody’s loss here, it has touched us all in some way.) But that isn’t anybody else’s journey. It’s yours. It’s tough to hear about others dying at the best of times but when you have received a clear scan and you are tentatively ready to move to the next base, it’s quite unhelpful to hear ‘oh yes, so did my wife and she died two years later’! I also had a conversation with a mother, whose daughter had died from breast cancer. She stood and celebrated my clear scan, and while I knew her daughter had also once had a clear scan, she never once made reference to it, and kept me uplifted in the conversation. Such a massive conversation for us both to have. It left me in tears from the sensitivity of it, but with a heart full of love for this woman.
- My friend has that and she’s doing great
It’s always fabulous to hear of people doing well. Coming out the other side. Or smashing the odds. It’s weird how we don’t like to hear other people being seriously unwell and we always go into ‘fix it’ mode. Willing someone to be better is a wonderful thing but ignoring what they have said back to you once you have asked them because it isn’t what you wanted to hear is draining! Shoving a throwaway comment in someone’s face when they are feeling far below the line is too tough to handle. There is no room in your brain to deal with it. Especially if you are trying to do great and it isn’t working out. And anyway, what exactly does your friend have? Because truthfully you don’t know. It’s hard enough to know what you have when you have it!
- Is it just breast cancer you have?
Dear me! What else would you like me to have?
- You must stay positive
Oh, must I? And at what stage in my life can I have the opportunity to feel a bit under par? If not when I have cancer… when? And for all those people that have died from cancer; well, were they not positive enough? Staying real is where it is at on a cancer diagnosis. Real and knowing what you can do for yourself. Not surrounding yourself with a load of sugar-coated fear. Yes, it is understood that people mean well. Just a little research and attention would enable you to listen and acknowledge that this is a tough time right now. That’s OK. We all have tough times. ‘You are going through it right now, I’m sorry about that’. Real. Empathetic. Truth.
- I’m never having chemotherapy if I get it!
Did you just say that? To me who’s just had it? Let’s hope you don’t get it! The truth is chemotherapy is archaic. It will be gone soon I am sure. It takes courage to sit and hold your arm out to receive that almighty cocktail. When you look your children in the eye you need to know you are doing everything you can. You hear all the time of people that die too soon from making the decision not to have it. You may be lucky enough to get away without it. It all depends on your cancer. What it is. Where it is. How it is behaving. And it is a personal choice. For me, it was a tough choice, not a given. There are no promises even if you have it. But think twice about telling someone that is making a choice for their life how you are going to do it so much better. I also read on a friend’s post about how they thought to have chemotherapy was for idiots and that the people that had it are like sheep. Say that if you have the misfortune of experiencing it, but in the meantime – DELETE.
- You’ll be fine
Will I? How do you know? Do you even know what I have, what type, what grade, what anything? I know you want me to be fine, but the truth is I simply don’t know just now and you are not a doctor and you are freaking me out telling me I’ll be fine. It’s what I want most. But even I simply don’t know just now. Try to avoid spilling your fear all over someone. Tell them you wish them as speedy a recovery as possible as tough as it may be right now. Truth, breeds trust.
It is laughable that you are subjected to this onslaught at your lowest time. What is simply amazing is that chatting to others who have been diagnosed; they have a very similar list. There is always someone happy to tell you of someone that died from it. Breathtaking!
This may seem a bit heavy but it does actually happen. I wanted this information to be of service and for you to know that we can still always love the people that say them.
It also makes me sad that I may have said similar things in previous times because I simply didn’t understand either. I’m not blaming people for their lack of thought or their own insecurities. It’s hard to tell people how to communicate about cancer when you feel trapped inside your isolated mind. If the conversation wasn’t going well, I learned to say to people let’s not discuss it, or I would simply stay away.
Mostly, you will have never heard a cancer patient talk about what they need because you haven’t been that up close or the person you knew couldn’t articulate their own heartbreak. It’s hard all round to speak about it, and it’s hard to hear about it too because let’s be honest, we would rather it just didn’t have to be dealt with, talked about or faced.
When my Oncologist signed me off this month, feeling I can continue with my recovery without his help, he was thrilled to hear about my change of work. Supporting Breast Cancer patients by providing supportive inspirational messages, one a day for a year. A gift for a year, support for a lifetime. He was delighted that I could advocate for people. Both the patient and the friends and family who have no idea what to say. There are times he said when he didn’t know what to say either. Such a tough job.
Sometimes saying nothing, and listening, is better than leaving a trail of devastation.
If you don’t know what to do for someone going through the same, you are in often walked in shoes. That’s ok. You are not on your own. You will neither be the first or the last in this position. It is worth seeking out what to do, both for yourself and your loved one. There are plenty of cancer charities that will be prepared to help you. Just recognising you are out of your depth and doing something about it is a fabulous thing. There are plenty of people willing to help you find your way. Sign in to The 365 Hive : We’ve got you. Weekly support and events to connect you.
Deborah Fielding is a breast cancer survivor, award winning mentor, writer and speaker. She has created http://www.365daysofbreastcancer.com/ to support others with the same and http://www.365daysofnutrition.com/.