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What Not to Say to Someone With Breast Cancer

Photograph by Getty Images

Until January 6th, I only really knew about breast cancer what most people know: It’s cancer in your breast.

Because I have no family history, and because bad things don’t happen to me, I was never really worried about it. Sure, I went for my first mammogram in December because I turned 40 last year, and it’s what you’re supposed to do. However, I was expecting a medal or at the very least a pat on the back for getting the mammogram when I was supposed to, not an actual cancer diagnosis. And I had to pay for it! To be told I had cancer! And they didn’t even buy me dinner after!

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The first couple of days after the diagnosis are kind of hazy now. Tears, hysteria ranging from minor to nuclear, phone calls and emails ensued to and from close family and the closest of friends. But then it was all about the emails. From family and friends and friends of their family and friends. Enough to fill a spreadsheet. Literally, I made a spreadsheet of the names of the doctors—breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, oncologists—that loving friends and family sent me.

It turns out that pretty much everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend or a friend of a friend of a friend who wanted to or was willing to speak to me about their own breast cancer experience. It’s kind of like when you have a miscarriage and you have no idea how common they are until it happens to you. It’s comforting, except it’s really not.

So I spoke to them all at first—all the cancer-connection people. And then I stopped completely. One person with whom I spoke was practically screaming at me for what I didn’t already know about my condition, for the doctors I was planning to see and for not acting quickly enough. This, despite our conversation, which took place less than 72 hours after my diagnosis.

When I said to a friend who had a double mastectomy a few years ago, “People mean well,” she replied, “Actually, not all of them do.”

I’ve learned over the years that you don’t ask someone to tell you what they need—you just do.

I’m not sure why she’s right, but she is. I’ve had people tell me that just because my cancer is DCIS that I’m crazy for getting a double mastectomy. They ignore me when I tell them that the affected area covers such a large area of my breast that I don’t have a choice. And that an actual breast surgeon thinks this is the right course of action. I’ve had others tell me where I have to be treated, despite the fact that my form of cancer is not rare, which means it’s really OK for me to be comfortable being treated in hospitals that are still highly respected, despite not being located on a coast.

I really would like to think everyone means well, but the ones who’ve meant the most to me have not once made me feel worse than I already do.

An oncology nurse at the hospital where I live has been acting as my fairy godmother in this process, telling me from the beginning to take this one step at a time. And she's reminded me that no two cancers, even with the same diagnosis, are the same. This—and having her cell phone plugged into my address book—has helped me breathe a little easier on more than a few occasions when others have sent me into a full-on panic.

Because of my husband’s jam-packed work schedule and given that he’ll be taking time off for my surgery, my mom is flying out to go to some of my medical consultations with me and one of my best friends is joining me at some others. A neighbor has been delivering freshly squeezed juices each morning that he’s blended with organic fruits and vegetables. A few friends have called, texted or emailed just a string of obscenities, providing me with some much-needed smiles, warm with the knowledge that there are those who understand exactly how I think. When I talk to my dad, he has that gentle lilt in his voice that brings me back to the feeling of total security he always gave me when tucking me in bed at night when I was little. Perfectly chocolate cupcakes were at my doorstep along with a pitch-perfect note from my sister just days after getting the news. She doesn’t live close enough to come and hug me, but that care package did the trick.

I’ve learned over the years that you don’t ask someone to tell you what they need—you just do. Since there’s not much I need in the weeks leading up to my surgery, what I need is what a precious few have given me: an ear to really listen, an opportunity for distraction, and, at times, a little space. The lovely flowers I’ve received haven’t hurt, either.

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While I get how natural it is for people to want to share their own experiences when tragedy strikes, it's sometimes—for the person who’s currently experiencing some form of tragedy—the last thing I want to hear. Practical advice is completely acceptable, like my friend’s aunt and another friend’s cousin who guided me on the kind of shirts to have on hand after the surgery.

But sometimes beyond that, what people think is comforting is really just distressing. And when you’re already distraught, having someone siphon away whatever peace you have left is a battle that can momentarily seem as insurmountable as your diagnosis.

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