Approaching People With Breast Cancer – What Do I Say? What Do I Do?
As a two-time breast cancer survivor I have interacted with many well-meaning people striving to say and do the right thing. While people with breast cancer may not all agree on what words and deeds are apt, I share the following suggestions from my own experience for your consideration:
1. Avoid scriptural platitudes after diagnosis, such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”) A sympathetic ear goes much further.
2. Statements usually help more than questions. Often “How are you?” is not easily answered. Instead, say you are thinking about and praying for the patient.
3. Let survivors know they are not expected to respond to notes or gifts.
4. Don’t assume a patient wants visits in the hospital. Always call before coming.
5. Don’t tell a patient just diagnosed with breast cancer that he/she is “blessed” because of a definitive diagnosis, catching it early, or having a “good” kind of cancer (not a worse type of breast cancer or pancreatic cancer). At that time in my life, I didn’t relish hearing I was fortunate.
6. Don’t give hugs to patients undergoing treatment unless you ask first. Receiving embraces can be painful, at least after surgery.
7. No matter how well meaning, avoid constantly telling breast cancer patients, “You look good.” At least in my case this kind of remark made me feel like I had never looked smashing in my pre-cancer days. Referring to appearance is safe if commenting on clothing, but know the patient well before complimenting her wig.
8. Don’t tell the patient the cancer might be wrongly diagnosed. Rarely is breast cancer misdiagnosed.
9. Refrain from assumptions that a cancer patient is giving up. That person may be fighting cancer with gusto-or seeking heaven’s glory. Don’t contribute to any misunderstandings by prejudging motives.
10. Don’t say “I know how you feel” unless you have been there. Many expressions are not helpful to a newly diagnosed cancer survivor facing what seemingly does not have a happy-ever-after flavor.
11. If a survivor friend rejects your advice, don’t push it. Accept her answer. When I politely refused someone’s recommendation to take supplements, he shocked me by asking, “Are you prepared to die?” The general rule is that if the survivor raises the subject, it’s safe. Unwanted suggestions are not.
12. Investigate with the doctors what simple things you can do to ease the daily pressures on people with breast cancer. For example, inquire how to secure a handicap placard from the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state, if appropriate. Determine whether the survivor is exempt from jury duty permanently.
13. With the patient’s permission attend all doctor visits and chemotherapy sessions if you are able. A more objective listener like you can take notes or record information from the doctor about treatment options and other potentially emotion-laden facts.
14. You can let the breast-cancer survivor know what is available from the public or cancer-center library so he/she can select books and other media that you can check out.
15. If the cancer survivor so desires, conduct research on cancer-related subjects (such as insurance and medical treatment options) using reliable sources.
16. Be specific when you offer assistance. For example, rather than asking generally, “Can I help?” ask if you can clean house or prune the roses.
17. Do not assume that breast cancer patients will lose weight as a result of chemotherapy. While this was true several decades ago, it no longer is. Many patients gain weight after chemo. Avoid gifts of comfort foods lovely to behold but high in fat unless you are sure the patient will appreciate them. He/she may feel obligated to eat them, but later regret having partaken.
18. Don’t tell people with breast cancer that in five years they will be cured. For breast-cancer survivors, this is not necessarily accurate. Rather than offering false hope, commit to pray for the person. Do tell a survivor never to give up hope, to fight breast cancer. The success of treatments has nearly transformed advanced breast cancer into a chronic illness, often with a decent quality of life.
19. Send cards and gifts to people with breast cancer long after treatment ends. These remembrances often taper off quickly once cancer survivors are back on their feet again. The unexpected delivery of a bouquet to my house a year after my diagnosis made me feel especially appreciated.
If you’ve been hesitant to approach people with breast cancer because you don’t know what to say or do, I hope these tips will help you respond in ways that are both compassionate and considerate.