In honor of breast cancer awareness month: 11 things not to say to women who’ve had breast cancer

It’s October. For many of us in the US that means welcoming fall and the end of the presidential campaign. For some of us, it’s the dreaded Pinktober, the time of year when football stadiums, Facebook feeds, and promotional products become awash in Pepto Bismol-pink for breast cancer awareness month.

Peggy Orenstein smartly wrote in 2013 in “Our Feel Good War on Breast Cancer” that more women may know to get mammograms, but early detection isn’t the key to preventing women from dying of the metastatic disease.

For those of us who have had breast cancer, October can feel irritating, silly, insensitive, and often like a 31-day long trigger. One of my friends aptly described it in a Facebook post: “NOTHING about having cancer is cutesy and pink and some of us don’t want a visual reminder of the WORST experience of our lives on the daily…Please don’t trigger anyone anymore than they already probably are.”

As many of us who’ve had cancer have written, the language we use about cancer is problematic. I can sympathize—it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is going through (or has gone through) cancer diagnosis or treatment. So here’s a little primer (drawn from things people have said to me) to help you out when you encounter one of the more than 3 million of us. Do not say:

  1. You’re so lucky, you get new boobs.” Most of us would rather keep the ones we were born with.
  2. When wearing a wig during chemotherapy: “At least you don’t have to worry about a bad hair day.” A day without hair is almost always the worst hair day.
  3. What did you eat growing up?” A heaping pile of cancer.
  4. Oh my god, you’re so young!” I know, it was a surprise for me too.
  5. You’re so strong.” Or brave or fearless—most likely untrue and no more true than for any other human experiencing the hardships of life.
  6. This is so scary.” We know.
  7. Don’t call us: “breast cancer victims.” “Survivor” is bad enough.
  8. What’s your prognosis?” This always felt like someone was asking if I was going to die.
  9. My plumber’s brother’s wife’s sister died of breast cancer last year.” Yes, we all know someone who’s had cancer.
  10. When are you done?” With regard to treatment, it’s a constant refrain. Most of us are never “done.”
  11. Are you in remission?” There’s no such thing with breast cancer. It can always come back.

After reading through this list, it may seem like there’s nothing you can say that is right, and if you asked my family, they might agree. But here’s the thing: if you care, it shows. The point is, having cancer is weird and isolating and many of these seemingly harmless comments make us feel more weird and alone. Do say:

  1. I love you.
  2. I’m here for you.
  3. Let me know if you want to talk.
  4. Would you like to go see a movie?
  5. Can I come to the doctor with you?
  6. I’m thinking about you.
  7. How was your day?
  8. Do you need a ride?
  9. I’d like to tell you about my day.
  10. How are you feeling?
  11. We’ll get through this.

And when in doubt, presents always help, just as long as they’re not pink.

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