October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and there are a ton of things you can do to help fight breast cancer, including hosting or participating in a fundraiser, going pink for October to raise awareness, and more.
But during all the October activities planned to raise awareness about breast cancer, you should also be aware that it’s a sensitive and highly personal subject for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, whether recently or in the past.
There are nearly 3 million breast cancer survivors in America. And not one of them wants you to hear you say the following:
1. ”Has it come back? Is it somewhere else?”
A year after her diagnosis, Maureen Hovey, a nurse in Orlando, wanted to talk about how she was putting her life back together—not about whether her cancer might return. “I was worried about my new normal and people were more concerned about ‘is it back?’” Her advice on how to talk to cancer survivors? “Focus on the person as a whole, not on the disease.”
2. ”You don’t really need your breasts anymore.”
Hello? Did you just say that to a cancer survivor…out loud?! “I had a friend who when I was considering treatment options actually said, ‘You’re old. You don’t need breasts anyways. It’s not like you’re in your 20s,’” recalls Anne Steele, who lives in Hermosa Beach, California. “When I jumped all over him, he realized what he had said.”
Even though breasts are often compared to melons, there is no expiration date.
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3. “You must be so happy you’re cured!”
Most breast cancer survivors appreciate that friends and family want to celebrate when their treatment is over. “But it’s not really over,’” says civil servant Dawn Bontempo, a DC-area survivor who turned her blogs about breast cancer into a book, Breast Cancer Mardi Gras: Surviving the Emotional Hurricane and Showing My Boobs to Strangers. “Your friends think ‘You’re done!’ But you’re not really done. You’re not fully healed emotionally.”
Telling anybody how they should feel is a no-no, says social worker Maureen Broderick, who runs Bontempo’s breast cancer support group. “Survivors have all sorts of mixed feelings and worries at the end of their treatment, too,” Broderick says. “Life is never going to be the same for cancer survivors, and they need time adjust.”
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4. “I would get both breasts removed so I would never have to worry about getting cancer again.”
Actually, unless you are actually faced with the situation you have no idea what you would do, says Anne Steele. “Basically, anytime a person with breast cancer is talking, the other person should only listen and not give their opinion unless requested.” In other words, keep your mouth shut.
5. “If you need anything, let me know.”
Offers of vague help put the onus on the person with breast cancer to figure out how you can help, and that’s just not very, well, helpful. “It’s more beneficial to say, ‘I’m here for you. I’d like to help out and drive you to one of your treatments/appointments. Or I’m here for you. I’d like to cook you dinner,’” says Anne Steele. “Be specific.”