- Created: Tuesday, 11 February 2014 17:08
I hesitated to blog about this for some time now, but the message continues to come through loud and clear from breast cancer survivors throughout the world. No one knows what to say to us, so they say something that is not helpful or even worse, something that is offensive. Many of you reading this have said something along these lines but you should know that you are not alone. Please read on and learn how you can help in the future.
#5: “You’ll have so much fun with a wig! Besides, it’s just hair. It will grow back.”
Next to the obvious, hair loss is one of their biggest concerns for women when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. It can be traumatic and stigmatizing, announcing to the world that you are sick. In the scheme of things, it is just hair and it will grow back, but please don’t trivialize this very difficult part of the process.
#4. “OMG! Girl you are so lucky! You are going to get a free boob job and lose weight from the chemo!”
Winning the lottery: luck. Being diagnosed with breast cancer...not so much. A bilateral mastectomy is not the same surgery as augmentation. Our lives are literally on the line when making decisions about surgery for breast cancer. I often joke that I will be “perky” forever, but truth be told, my implants are a constant reminder that my body will never be the same.
Advances in treatment have given us an arsenal of tools in the fight against breast cancer, but chemotherapy is not easy. In a true paradox, many people gain weight during chemo from the steroids and fatigue related to chemotherapy.
#3. “At least you got the good kind of cancer. Everyone walks for you and besides no one ever dies from breast cancer anymore.”
Hmmm...since when is any kind of cancer “good”?
In fact, 40,000 people die from breast cancer every year in the US alone. It is very treatable, especially when caught early but the ripple effect of a breast cancer diagnosis is far reaching in the many thousands that are diagnosed each year.
#2. “Why do you think you got it? Did you smoke or ignore a lump or something?”
This question tends to be one of fear. If it happened to me, it could happen to you and that’s frightening, so you want to know we are not the same. No, I didn’t smoke or do drugs or ignore a lump. In fact, I was very healthy, had regular mammograms and ran my first 5K a few months before my diagnosis. If it makes you feel better, I do have a mutation in my BRCA 2 gene, but no one is immune to a breast cancer diagnosis.
Please, use your fear to be proactive. Schedule your mammogram, do monthly self exams, know your body and be aware of changes. Know your risks and take extra precaution if you are at high risk.
And now, the number one thing that you should NEVER say to a breast cancer survivor:
1. “My (fill in the blank) died from breast cancer. It was a horrible death. She was so brave and fought so hard. We miss her so much.”
I had someone text me a link the other day and her message said, “I thought you might like an article about a woman who recently lost her life to breast cancer.” Ummmm...thanks but no thanks??? I ignored the text and still haven’t responded. She actually took the time to WRITE these words in a text and thought that I would like to read about someone who died from the disease that so rudely interrupted my life, uninvited and unwelcome.
Why is it that we say such insensitive things to someone facing one of the most challenging times in their life? I was so intrigued with this idiosyncrasy of human behavior that I spent many months analyzing it. This is what I came up with, based on my background as a licensed mental health therapist and more than a year of resisting the urge to say, “Did you seriously just say that out loud?”
I should point out that this is not limited to a potentially life threatening diagnosis. Ask any woman who has ever been pregnant about the horrific stories that people share with them about labor and delivery. I will never forget the first time that someone told me a horror story when I was pregnant with my oldest son. I was floating in a bubble of bliss...carrying a life in my body, nurturing a baby and loved him/her more than I could have ever imagined. In walks a mom of older kids who proceeds to tell me about a woman who died in childbirth. Or the woman on the elevator who told me about the c-section gone wrong and the baby died. I felt violated by these stories but I was certainly not alone in my experience. (I see all of you moms across the world nodding as you read this while pregnant women are instinctively wrapping their hands around their protruding tummies.)
It all boils down to this...people do not know what to say and they stumble over how to handle the situation.
Imagine this scenario: A friend walks up to you and tells you that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. As human beings, we want to connect with others and be empathetic. We hear the words “breast cancer” and our brain begins to churn through our memories until we remember that Aunt Susie had breast cancer. We begin sharing Aunt Susie’s experience with breast cancer, because that will help this friend realize that we totally get it. But somewhere along the way we hear ourselves saying something like this: “Aunt Susie was so brave as she fought breast cancer for two years. We were all so sad when she died and we miss her every day.” As those words are leaving our mouth, somewhere, an alert goes off in our head.
“STOP TALKING!! DON’T SAY THAT!”
But it’s too late. The damage is done. This person who walked up to us seeking comfort is mortified and we have ruined their day.
So what can we say? Are there magic words that will make the situation better? The simple answer is: NO.
Nothing you say can fix the situation, unless you have a cure for cancer.
Take the pressure off of yourself to say the perfect thing that will end all of their worries. No one expects you to fix it or make it better...but please don’t make it worse.
Rather than struggling to find the perfect words, offer your support instead with a few simple words:
“I’m sorry. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers as you go through treatment.”
Then, let her take the lead. If she wants to talk about it, listen...just listen. Don’t try to think ahead and figure out what to say next...just listen. If she wants to talk about anything other than cancer, talk about your common interests.
Most of us follow up with “Let me know how I can help.” Check back next week to see why this isn’t always the best approach and learn what you can do to truly help others who are struggling with breast cancer or any other storm in life.
Thanks for reading!
Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW
© Copyright 2013-2014 Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.