10 Odd Things to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#9 in a series)

What do you say to someone who has breast cancer? Well, you shouldn’t immediately launch into a list of folks who died of cancer, or about the horrible side effects of surgery and chemotherapy, nor should you downplay the seriousness of it all. A few simple words of support or a hug will do.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been the recipient of too many kind words and gestures to count, but I’ve also heard some very odd things. Here’s my Top 10 “They said what!?” List:

Upon hearing my diagnosis of breast cancer:

1. “Just be grateful you don’t have (insert any other form of) cancer.”

That’s the same kind of logic that applied after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Yes, I’m very grateful that I don’t have a worse cancer or a worse neurological disease. There’s always something worse. I’m also grateful that I’m not being stabbed in the eye with a hot poker or lit on fire. That doesn’t mean that the reality of breast cancer should be minimized.

2. “I’ve known lots of women who have had breast cancer. It’s not a big deal these days.”

According to The American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers, and is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, surpassed only by lung cancer. The most recent estimates (for 2010) were:

–About 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.

–About 54,010 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be diagnosed (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer).

–About 39,840 women will die from breast cancer.

In addition to the obvious health problem, the financial considerations, especially if you are uninsured, under-insured, or purchase your health insurance in the individual market, create tremendous long-term stress. Employment issues and family considerations add to the mix. Yes, it’s a big deal. We can end breast cancer by 2020

3. “Now you’ll have more credibility as a health writer.”

Seriously? What disease should I choose next?

About mastectomy:

4.At least it’s not an arm or a leg or something you really have to use.”

Another attempt to make me feel better and, again, I’m grateful things aren’t worse. Still, I’m very attached to all my body parts, including my breasts. I was using it, thank you.

5. “You must feel awful about… self-esteem/loss of femininity/sexuality/self-image.”

Should I feel awful? I wanted to live. That was more important than saving one breast. I can’t speak about how other women feel, but my sense of femininity and sensuality come from my spirit, not my body parts. I’d rather have that breast, but I’m still me, and not a stitch less feminine.

6.Well, you’re kind of small-breasted. It could be worse.”


7. “Which one?”

Like it matters. It’s a normal curious question, but it always makes me laugh.

About chemotherapy:

8. “Don’t be a wimp …”

I’m not sure what would constitute my being labeled a chemotherapy wimp, but thank you in advance for the guilt trip. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.

9. “Oh, you’re going to be sooooo sick!”

Ah, there’s the other side of the coin. Sounds like I can’t win.

About surviving:

10. “It’s all mental. If you decide to beat it, you will.”

I completely understand the intention of people who say this. Positive attitude (I have it in spades) helps tremendously. It’s not what happens to us that defines who we are, but how we respond to those events.

The ability to hold on to positive feelings — to put fear aside and to truly live in the moment — is what sustains me and others with serious health problems. The mental component is a vital key to living each day to the fullest, and not becoming all about cancer. But however positive we may be, it’s not all mental. There are other forces at work, too.

I cannot accept that people who succumb to cancer or other sometimes treatable diseases did so because they had the wrong attitude or didn’t try hard enough. That’s a mighty heavy burden to put on their shoulders.

I take comments like that with a grain of salt, understanding that sometimes words just tumble out before the speaker can fully appreciate their impact. We’ve all done it at one time or another … I know I’ve put my foot in my mouth more than once.

I have also been the recipient of an outrageous number of kindnesses and comforting words, which I will share in an upcoming post. Trust me on this … the most effective and most appreciated gestures are the simple ones.

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series

#1 The Lump in my Breast: Meeting the Enemy
#2 Most Breast Lumps are Non-Cancerous: Would mine be?
#3 The Mammogram, the Ultrasound, and ‘the Look’
#4 The Biopsy and Breast Cancer Confirmation
#5 A New Twist: It’s Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
#6 Before the Mastectomy: Planning for the Future
#7 Mastectomy Day: What it’s like to lose a breast
#8 After the Mastectomy: Unveiling and Staging

Access the up-to-date Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series


Breast Cancer in the News
Aggressive Breast Cancer Linked to Low Levels of Vitamin D

Take Action! Sign the petition: We can end breast cancer by 2020

Author’s Note: This is article is part of a series chronicling my first-hand patient perspective of life with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer. Without being overly self-indulgent, I hope to convey the raw emotion that comes with such a diagnosis… and the process of living with and beyond it. Entries will appear in Care2 Causes and in Care2 Healthy & Green Living. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo

For More Information:
Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation
American Cancer Society


Image: iStockPhoto.com


Anne F.
Anne F3 years ago

maybe better to offer to listen: how is it going? what's going well? Are you up for meeting me for tea? Can we walk on the beach together? What's on your mind?

Nina S.
Nina S3 years ago


donald Baumgartner

Say nothing except that you'll be there w/ a ear if they want to talk.

Lori Kopetski
Lori Kopetski7 years ago

I love your line: "It’s not what happens to us that defines who we are...". I so wanted my life or myself not to be defined by my breast cancer, unfortunately that is how everyone came to see me.

I wanted to discuss certain events in the news, discuss new scientific breakthroughs, politics, religion, lizard people - anything but my day-to-day war with breast cancer. It was in my face and I was staring it down, I just needed a break from it once in awhile.

*Sigh* It was not to be, for me, the best thing to say to a cancer patient is: how is your son in Arizona or h

Patricia G.
Patricia G8 years ago

I'm sorry you had to hear those things. You are very corageous, I really admire you. Be safe, you are loved.

mariah f.
mariah f8 years ago

Thank you for share with us your pains, your fight by life. You are a brave woman. God bless you.

Past Member
Past Member 8 years ago

After my lumpectomy and lymph node removal I was scheduled for a full Mastecomy and reconstruction , the most horrid comment was "Oh so when are you going into hospital for some more slice and dice?' needless to say this casual friend of a friend never made it to good friend statis!!
A hug, smile and some one to listen is the best help I feel ;)
Frankie :)

Lu Ann P.
Past Member 8 years ago

wow, idiots or AHs?
i can't say i'm full of the right words but, wow.

Carol B.
Carol Burk8 years ago

Ann, you are such a brave person! Thank you.

Charles B.
Charles B8 years ago

Thoughtful post. Thank you.