What Not to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer

Cynthia Bailey, MD|October 15, 2015


I’m writing from my own experience. Breast cancer is traumatic for most women and men who are diagnosed with it. We each handle the diagnosis and treatment differently. Some of us have cancer that is more curable, others of us don’t. Treatment can destroy vitality, and the battle may be lost. For others, silver linings in the ordeal lead to life adventures and insight that enriche life and makes it better than what we experienced before our diagnosis. Add to this that, for most women, breasts at some point in our life are an important part of our womanly self-image. Having one or both removed or mutilated comes with additional emotional challenges.

For all of these reasons, talking to someone about their breast cancer diagnosis is tricky. My life was stopped and forever changed in August of 2013 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis was a shock that hit me hard at a time when my life was on a roll. I had to stop working to endure a year of grueling chemotherapy and five surgeries. As a “booby prize,” I also won the diagnosis of carrying the BRCA gene mutation, meaning I was at high risk for other cancers like ovarian cancer. I needed those girly parts surgically removed and tested too.

Cancer abducted the life I knew.

How do you talk to someone like me?

How do you talk to all the other people you know who have been shaken by the breast cancer experience?

There are a lot of us out there who have had breast cancer, and it’s good to know how to navigate conversation in a way that ends well for everyone.

From my experience, as both a doctor caring for patients who have had breast cancer and now as a breast cancer patient, the best thing to do is to simply listen and watch. Try first to figure out where we are emotionally in the experience. We have our good days - days when we are filled with joy just to be here. On these days, we might actually enjoy talking about our triumphs in the journey. We also have bad days - days when we are scared, feeling sad for what we have been through, and need to talk about something else. On those days a sincere and simple, “I’m sorry for all you’ve been through” is supporting.

What’s really important is that any conversation is not about you. Don’t launch into:

  • Stories about someone you knew with breast cancer
  • What you know about it
  • What advice you have that you think will help

I rarely find any of this comforting.

Instead, see where we are at this moment. Let us lead the discussion, and then join into the direction we are taking. I know that kind people want to help others and to be supportive. To do this though, you need some information, which is the tricky part.

At work, I’ve taken the lead in sharing information by giving a synopsis of my story when a patient checks in for the first time since I returned to the office. It tells them what happened to me and how I am doing. This way, it breaks the ice for both me and the patient. It also means that whether it’s a cancer good day or a bad day for me, I don’t need to relive it because they will get the idea.

Of course it’s harder for the cancer survivor to take the lead in random social interactions. Some of us are more shell-shocked than others. I’m still reeling from the experience and living with the cancer gun aimed at my head for the next few years. My type of cancer comes back quickly and with a vengeance if it does come back. I have to make it to the 5-year mark before I am given an “all clear.” Then, there is the BRCA mutation putting my body at higher risk for cancer in other organs like my pancreas that can’t be removed, so I have to get used to navigating conversations about this as well.

So, what should you say and not say to someone like me?

  1. Watch, listen, and let me make the first conversational move about the cancer “dead elephant in the middle of the floor.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what I’ve been through.
  3. Don’t launch into what you need to tell me. I’ll ask if I’m searching for information. Mostly, I just want to talk about something else, like what’s new in your life or mine. Cancer is usually not what I want to talk about, as it already gets plenty of my attention.

During this Breast Cancer Awareness month, I want to encourage support for a wonderful organization called FORCE that fights breast and ovarian cancer. Help victims battle the fight by supporting this very deserving cause! For more information into how you can help, click here.

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