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8 Tips for Talking to Someone With Breast Cancer

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Whether or not you’ve experienced cancer before, hearing from someone that she’s been diagnosed is shocking and saddening. It can be hard to know what to say. You might think you know, but even though you mean well, you may end up hurting more than helping. These eight tips could help you talk to a relative, friend or co-worker who’s dealing with some tough news.

Say Something

Even if you don’t know what to say, you should still say something if you know a person has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The only time you shouldn’t is if it’s not public knowledge and the person doesn’t know you know what’s happening. Otherwise, ignoring the issue is probably more hurtful than an accidental foot-in-mouth situation. Breast cancer is serious. It can’t just be swept aside like it’s a piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth. Say something, even if it’s a simple “I’m so sorry.” Then, don’t be a stranger. Avoiding a person who’s going through cancer is just a terrible thing to do.

Speak From the Heart

Now that you’ve moved to say something, forget the dried-up old platitudes and speak from the heart. Tell the person you’re sorry she’s going through what she’s going through, and tell her you’re concerned about her. Keep it simple and sincere. She doesn’t expect you to have beautiful, poetic, greeting-card things to say. She expects you to be shocked and worried. Just make sure you don’t turn the focus on to you and how the news affects you. This is about her. Be real and then let her do the talking. Or, just share your concern, put a hand on her arm and then let that be it.

Keep in Mind That Cancer Is Serious

When you’re talking with someone who’s dealing with cancer, don’t downplay her illness. This may sound obvious, but it can be tough in practice. Cancer is serious and everyone knows it. You aren’t fooling anyone with “You seem fine” comments. Also, false optimism and “everything will be okay” isn’t helpful. You don’t know how everything is going to turn out, and this person has a lot of very real and valid fears. Telling someone to just stay positive is also counterproductive and diminishes her true feelings. She’s probably already trying to stay positive, and telling her to do so won’t help.

Keep Your Stories to Yourself

Every cancer is different. Every cancer patient is different. Even the same kind of cancer can have different effects on different people. The point is, keep your cancer stories to yourself, unless the person you’re talking to asks you specifically about your experience. By now we all know someone who has had cancer (or have been through it ourselves). But our stories don’t help the person experiencing it in the moment because her situation is hers alone. You can say that you have experience with cancer and that you’re there to support her, but leave it at that and let her ask you if she wants to know more.

Offer Support

Since your relative, friend or co-worker who’s dealing with cancer doesn’t need platitudes, advice about her state of mind, or stories about your other acquaintances with cancer, it may be difficult to figure out what she does need. What she needs is your support, and you should offer it. Let her know you are there to help or to just listen if she needs to talk. It’s okay to ask what she needs, but it’s even better to just make offers. That will take the pressure off of her to come up with things for you to do. Call up and offer to pick up dinner one night. Volunteer to watch the kids while she handles paperwork. Drive her to an appointment. Most of all, just let her know you will be around.

Tell Her When She Looks Good

Cancer and its treatments can be very tough on a person’s appearance. Someone who’s going through it doesn’t need to know when she looks ill. She’s probably already pretty sensitive to that. But telling someone when she looks particularly good can be a major boost at a trying time. Even a well-placed compliment can be just the right amount of support for someone. Maybe an outfit looks good on her or gives her extra color. Maybe her eyes are sparkling that day. You don’t have to fake it—she’ll know when you’re making stuff up because she can still see in the mirror. But when someone’s having a good day, it’ll help her to know that other people see it too. She knows you can see the bad days.

Follow Her Lead

Everyone deals with illnesses and other struggles differently. That’s why when talking to a friend with breast cancer, it’s important to follow her lead. If you ask how she’s doing and offer your support, she’ll respond as little or as much as she wants. The key is to let her talk. It’s not about you. If she wants to hear more about your experience with cancer or mammograms, she’ll ask. If she wants hints about how to be more positive or stay distracted during chemo sessions, she’ll ask. If she just wants to say, “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind,” then it’s okay to leave it at that. No matter what, stay in touch with that person and then let her lead the way.

Listen

Finally, one of the most important and helpful things you can do for a relative, co-worker or friend who has breast cancer is to listen. Don’t try to have all the answers or be the big hero who comes to the rescue. Just listen to her talk about whatever she wants to talk about, even if it’s not cancer. Keep away from digging around for personal details she might not want to share, and don’t be offended if there are questions she’d rather not answer, but do stay interested. We all know that things get less scary if we say them out loud and keep them from just bouncing around in our heads. Listening can have huge benefits for both of you.

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