What Not to Say to Breast Cancer Patients (or to anyone)

Let me preface this by saying that at some point you probably said one of these things to me or to someone else.  Please don’t feel bad about that.  You didn’t do anything wrong.  I just thought it was worth sharing this with the world after hearing similar perspectives from other breast cancer patients.

1.     “You look really good without hair.  I would look terrible bald.”

Many women have said this to me, and while both may be true, something deep inside of me cringed every time I heard it.  Telling a cancer patient “you look great” is very nice, but try to stay away from the bald thing.  It’s just a sensitive, traumatic experience for most women. 

 2.       “Life is fragile for all of us.  Any day something bad could happen to me too.”

I understand the intention of this comment.  When you are in the presence of a cancer patient, you feel vulnerable and want to connect. But it doesn’t make us feel better to know that something could happen to you too.  That is a terrible thought. Also, cancer patients face mortality and fear of the future in a very different way and it is frustrating when that is compared to a healthy person’s general fears about death.

 3.     “I know someone who had breast cancer…and she died.”

 This I’m not explaining.

 4.    “How did you find your breast cancer?”

This one actually doesn’t bother me, but many survivors have told me that they are frustrated by this question, especially from people who don’t know them well.  The question often stems more from a woman’s fear of getting breast cancer rather than really wanting to know about a breast cancer survivor’s experience.

 5.     “I’m sure you will be fine.”

 Oh how I wish this made me believe so!  There are statistics about risks of recurrence but the truth is that for each person cancer either comes back or it doesn’t.  I never know how to respond to this.  I am usually silent and about to cry.

 6.     “People only get what they can handle.  I would never be able to handle this.”

I did not get breast cancer because I am strong.  People who say this are terrified of getting cancer and want to believe it won’t happen to them.

 7.     “You can beat this!”

 I love the enthusiasm behind this, but let’s be real.  How exactly do I “beat this?”  The chemo beat it, but if it didn’t and I had six months to live, I would feel like I had let everybody down because I didn’t “fight” hard enough.  I know a lot of cancer patients use battle language, but that language gives a false sense of control over this unpredictable disease.

 8.     “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.”

 Yikes.  This one is harsh, I know.  I say this all the time and would have said this to myself.  Women living with breast cancer need help every day and they are not going to ask for it or “let you know.”  Instead of throwing out this vague statement, say something like  “I am making you dinner one night this week.  Which one?”  Or “I am babysitting for you this weekend.  What time?”

 On my last day of chemo a chaplain came in to see if anyone wanted to talk to him.  I could tell he was new, a little nervous, and so I invited him to sit down next to me.  He was unprepared, had absolutely no idea what to say, and had literally broken out in sweat. Awkward! Finally he just got up, wordless, and left.  My infusion partner and I exchanged a look and (bless his heart) burst out laughing.

There really are no perfect words.






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4 Responses to What Not to Say to Breast Cancer Patients (or to anyone)

  1. Denise (Wagner Furman) says:


  2. Katie O'Reilly says:

    I think I’ve said at least 50% of these things to you multiple times over the last few months. Oy! There really are no perfect words. I guess language is inadequate so much of the time. What else can we do but be there?

  3. Breck McCarty says:

    You summed this up well, Adina! I really don’t like “God only gives you what you can handle”. Hmmm, I must be a bad-ass if God thinks I can handle all this! Thanks for this:) Hugs!

  4. Pingback: The words that meant the most | Healing Adina

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