From the inside looking out again, it seems obvious to not say these things to someone undergoing treatment for cancer. But from the outside looking in, you probably wouldn’t know any better. And we know you have good intentions, but a looooot of these statements come across flippant and tone deaf.
What not to say to someone with cancer
Here are a few things you should probably – no, DEFINITELY – not say to any cancer patient ever. Not even your bff. Not even your mom. Not even your coworker. Nobody. Not ever.
Oh, did you do something to your hair?
Yeah, I got cancer.
But you look so good with short hair!
Thanks, I guess? It wasn’t a choice, and I don’t feel comfortable with it…but thanks.
At least you have a good shaped head!
What??? What compels you to say such a thing?
It’s not that bad – at least it’ll grow back!
Cool. Let’s cut your hair off then if it’s no big deal!
I could never do chemo.
Cause I had “do chemo” on my bucket list, right?
Have you tried [insert holistic, unproven, bullshit] instead of chemo?
Look, I’ll take all the woo woo stuff you’ve got, but I’m still doing chemo!!!
I had cancer, too, but I cured it holistically!
No you didn’t lol.
Well at least you have the good cancer!
No cancer is good cancer. No, not even cancers with higher survival rates. All cancers are bad, even if some prognoses are worse.
You don’t even look sick!
That’s cause when I’m feelin’ like absolute garbage, I stay home. If you see me out and about, I’m feeling OK that day.
You’re so brave / I could never do what you’re doing.
I know, this one’s tough to hear. But I’m not brave. I’m doing what I have to do. Brave is performing in front of a crowd. Brave is jumping out of a plane. Doing medically mandated treatments is just… necessary. And you could do it, too, if you had to. But let’s hope you don’t have to.
You’ll be fine!
Will I be fine? I know you mean well and don’t want me to worry (and you don’t want to worry, either), but this is such a brush-off way of saying “don’t worry about it!” – especially when we don’t know if I will, in fact, be fine.
I understand! My [much older relative] had cancer, too!
As someone on the outside of things (i.e. not actually receiving treatment or dealing with a diagnosis yourself), no, you don’t actually understand, and their cancer isn’t my cancer. You might be “familiar” with some cancer-related things, but you don’t understand what *I* am going through. No, not even if your relative or friend went through cancer treatment. You do not understand how it feels to be in the position of someone with cancer. (And I hope you never do.)
Oh, also they died.
Bro what? That really fills me up with hope, thanks!!!
Omg, don’t joke about [cancer-related thing] like that!
If you’re not the person with cancer, don’t tell the person with cancer how to cope with their own fucking cancer. I’m gonna share some dark humor memes and joke about cancer because I can, and if it makes you uncomfortable, I don’t give a shit.
Good thing you’re done with treatment and can go back to normal now!
There is no “normal”. Having cancer will always warp our idea of what “normal” is, and we’ll always be worried about the cancer coming back. I’m trying to recover and be in a place where I was before cancer, but assuming everything’s just…back to the way it was is, in a word, asinine.
Check back soon for another installment of “what not to say to other cancer patients even if you, yourself have/had cancer”. Because believe it or not, some of the most cringeworthy things have come from the mouths of other cancer patients.
They don’t tell ya this when you get cancer, but once they have a suspicion that you’re sick, shit moves fast.
So fast that you don’t really have time to think about any of it.
I often get asked how it happened.
How’d I find out? When did I find out? And of course – do I have a family history of cancer? (No, and many breast cancer diagnoses don’t have family history tied to them, either.)
And I usually repeat the same thing over and over. Sometimes without much detail, sometimes with more.
But it’s been a year now since this whole shit show came to head, so I decided I’d write down a little timeline of the pre-diagnosis to diagnosis stage for y’all. Consider it a cancerversary gift from me to you.
2020: The year that, when asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” – you better be prepared to find out
2020 was a lot of things for a lot of people. But it wasn’t so bad for me. Well, not until the very end.
December 2020: Age 26, 2 months until my birthday
Noticed a lump in my left breast.
I might have been showering. I might have been taking my bra off for the night or putting it on at the beginning of the day. Who knows? I don’t remember. But I felt something.
It felt weird, but I didn’t think it was cancer. Not even for a second. Like, why would I? But when the lump didn’t go away after a few days, I asked my boyfriend to check it out. He’s more paranoid than I am about things regarding health, so when he said I should go to the doctor, I said maybe after the holidays and kind of shrugged it off. But he was adamant. So a few days later, I asked my mom to feel the lump. She said the same thing. Still, I didn’t want to try to get a doctor’s appointment a week before Christmas, our anniversary, and the new year, so I scheduled an appointment for January. It was next year’s problem.
2021: Last year might have been the worst year of your lives, but not me!
If you thought 2020 was bad, I can do you one better!
January 2021: Age 26, 1 month until my birthday
January 11: Go in to my normal clinic, see a nurse practitioner. Tell her what’s going on. She’s nice, but she of course doesn’t think it’s cancer either.
I’m young, I’m healthy, I show no physical signs of illness besides the gigantic lump in my breast (which is not visible to the naked eye – you’d literally have to touch it to “see” it). She tells me to monitor it. Check once a week, not more than that. It’s probably just an inflamed milk duct. Wait until my next period cycle. If it goes away, great. If it starts growing, hurting, call her. Come back in a month to see her for a follow-up regardless.
Gives me this informational sheet that basically says it’s not cancer. Most breast lumps aren’t cancer, it reads. Right. Except for the ones that are.
February 2021: Age 26, 10 days until my birthday
February 15: A hell of a day in and of itself, but who knew just how more hellacious my life was about to get? I just had my performance review. It went great; it always did. But I was upset because I didn’t get the compensation I was looking for with my promotion. I was in a bad mood.
And I had to go to the fucking doctor on top of it. And I hated going to the doctor. What were they going to tell me? Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it, whatever! Thanks for wasting your time coming here today!!! Because that’s what they always did to me. It was nothing. I was fine. Pay your copay. Go home.
So I got to the clinic. I checked in. I chatted with the same nurse practitioner. This time, she was a bit more serious. The lump hadn’t gotten any worse in the past month, but it hadn’t gotten any better, either. She told me she was going to refer me to breast imaging so they could tell me for sure what’s going on. Still, she was of the mindset that it was probably a cyst, nothing to worry about. I didn’t have any of the “signs” of breast cancer – no puckering of the skin, no discoloration, no discharge, no visible changes – nothing. Except for a gigantic fucking lump.
From this point, I don’t remember if they called me to schedule the appointment or I called them, but I think the latter. I told them I couldn’t meet until after March 2nd because I was out of town that weekend. My boyfriend and I were heading to Williams Bay, WI, for a birthday weekend getaway. And I wasn’t about to deal with this shit during my birthday.
…so they scheduled me for March 3rd.
March 2021: Age 27, 6 days after my birthday
March 3: They scheduled me for a mammogram and ultrasound. When I went in, I had to fill out one of those medical history forms. Wasn’t much to fill in. I can’t remember much, but I think I was in and out within 30, maybe 45 minutes. Boy does it hurt when your breasts are squished between plastic plates for imaging purposes.
The notes from the visit on the medical portal read:
You were seen on Wednesday March 3, 2021. The following issues were addressed: Lump of left breast
I can’t remember if they told me right then and there that I needed to schedule a follow-up, or if they called me later that day, but they told me I needed to come back for another mammogram and ultrasound.
The notes on the test result portion on the portal read:
MAMMOGRAPHY HIGHLY SUGGESTIVE OF MALIGNANCY Indeterminant spiculated palpable mass in the upper outer left breast. Ultrasound-guided biopsy recommended.
I started to worry. I started to worry a lot.
March 9: I came in again for another mammogram and ultrasound. And a biopsy. They decided to do a needle biopsy during the ultrasound. I was very scared. I don’t remember if I asked any questions. I don’t remember much after the visit.
The notes from the visit on the medical portal read:
You were seen on Tuesday March 9, 2021. The following issues were addressed:
Left breast mass
Abnormal mammogram of left breast
a b n o r m a l – every girl’s favorite word to hear about her breasts.
The notes on the test result portion on the portal read:
ULTRASOUND GUIDED BIOPSY Ultrasound guided biopsy of a left breast mass. Pathology revealed invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3, which is concordant. Ultrasound guided biopsy of a left axillary lymph node. Pathology revealed metastatic disease, which is concordant. Surgical consultation recommended. Further evaluation with bilateral diagnostic mammogram and/or MRI recommended.
But wait! There’s more. I also got this gem:
A. Left axillary lymph node:
Portion of lymph node with metastatic carcinoma.
B. Core biopsy, left breast, 2 o’clock:
Invasive ductal carcinoma, Nottingham score 3+3+3. (See comment)
Now, I know how to fucking read, but let me tell ya – I was so confused by all of this. All I really got was “metastatic carcinoma,” which I knew meant cancer that had spread. I was, at this point, self-teaching cancer terminology. I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend. I didn’t want to tell my mom. I didn’t want to give any weight to these words. I knew “metastatic” was code for “has spread” and I conflated it with “terminal” – because in many instances, metastatic = terminal.
So here I am fucking freaking out because the geniuses who invented medical portals think it’s cool to send test results to patients before doctors get a chance to talk results through with them.
March 10: Some lady calls me from the clinic I go to. “Hey, we need you to come in to discuss your recent test results.” I already knew it was cancer. “You can just tell me over the phone.” “No, we need you to come in. Can you come in today?”
No, because I fucking work??? I can’t just drop my life on a dime because y’all don’t want to tell me over the phone. I was irritated. Just fucking tell me I have cancer. I already KNEW by this point. All the “hush hush” bullshit was getting on my nerves.
But I’m not as rude to people on the phone as I am when reflecting on a piss-poor patient experience a year later. So I talked to my managers. Told them what was up. Scheduled myself to go in the next day to ~ discuss my results ~
March 11: It was a Thursday. I don’t remember the weather. I don’t remember what I was wearing. My dad was off of work. My mom was off of work. My boyfriend took the day off. We rode in together to the clinic.
I knew why I was going. I asked if I could bring somebody in over the phone before I went inside. No, because of COVID. They said you could bring somebody in if you were a minor, elderly, or discussing surgery.
I knew why I was going. But I didn’t feel right saying, “Well I’m about to be fucking diagnosed with cancer so I think that’s a good enough reason for me to bring somebody in.”
So I went inside alone.
I waited. Maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20. The same nurse practitioner from before came in. No smile. Low tone. Giving off a depressing aura. I hit record on my phone’s voice recording app. I didn’t want to forget anything she said. And she talked in a fucking circle for six straight minutes until she finally blurted out that “the biopsy came back positive for cancer”. Oh yeah? You think?
“Okay,” I said. “So what happens next?” I didn’t cry. Well…not at first. I had already resigned myself to the fact that it was cancer.
“Do you have anyone here with you?” “Yeah, but they wouldn’t let me bring somebody in.” “Do you want to call someone to come in?” “Yeah.”
They only let me bring one person in and I had to choose who out of the three most important people to me I would be bringing in to tell the worst possible fucking news of my entire life.
I called my mom to come in. I had already text my boyfriend to let him know.
I don’t remember how long we stayed inside the room. I remember I kept asking questions about what happens next, this and that. But she told me the cancer center would call me to make my primary appointment with “the cancer team,” and that they would answer all of my questions. And of course I had a lot to ask.
We left the clinic. I went outside. I ran to my boyfriend. He jumped out of the backseat, we hugged, and we cried. My dad got out of the car, we hugged, and we cried.
Curious how you can make a difference for the breast cancer community during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October 1–31 annually), but not sure where to start?
Here’s a rundown of seven key ways you can make an impact by doing more than just wearing pink.
1. Donate or raise money
Donations are the number one way to help people diagnosed with breast cancer. Donating money to breast cancer foundations helps fund research hours that can lead to better diagnostic tools, medication approval, treatment testing, and hopefully – someday – a cure. Women undergoing treatment for all breast cancer, but specifically metastatic (stage 4, terminal) breast cancer need funding urgently to get more research hours to hopefully find a way to eradicate the disease.
Here are a few major foundations and associations you can donate to:
You might not have money to donate to others, and that’s okay. But you may have time, which is a valuable asset as well. Some of the foundations above also have volunteer opportunities for events like breast cancer awareness walks. You can also volunteer at the cancer center at your local hospital.
Here are a few volunteer opportunities you can join:
While it seems like there are tons of resources and “awareness” out there, unless you’re impacted by a diagnosis or by a family member or friend undergoing treatment, you probably know a lot less about breast cancer than you think.
Breast cancer is not pretty and pink. It’s not “the good cancer,” as people often say. While most breast cancers are treatable and often curable, studies show that women diagnosed at a younger age often suffer higher chances of death, later stage diagnoses, and more aggressive forms of cancer than those diagnosed later in life.
With this information in mind, even if you’re personally unable to donate money or time, sharing resources and knowledge is free. Here are a few sites and their uses for breast cancer (and other cancer) fighters and their support systems:
Because treatment plans for breast cancer can vary – and not all people have the same side effects – you can make wellness packages for specific treatment stages or regimens.
For example, if someone undergoing chemotherapy is having trouble eating, but manages to keep soft foods down, a care package consisting of jellos, puddings, instant potato packets, microwavable rice, and stovetop mac-n-cheese might be a good option. Similarly, if someone is scheduled to have a mastectomy, check what stores offer mastectomy bras and buy a gift card for them to help them toward the purchase of a new bra.
5. Amplify voices of breast cancer thrivers/survivors
Along with sharing resources, amplifying voices of women affected by breast cancer is another helpful way to do more. Three groups of people who often get overlooked in discussions surrounding breast cancer are adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients, metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patients, and men with breast cancer.
AYA breast cancer patients
As with most cancers, age is a risk factor for breast cancer. The median age of diagnosis in the United States is 63, which leads most coverage of breast cancer to focus on mothers and grandmothers, not youthful, energetic 20 and 30-something-year-olds. You’ll see TV ads about breast cancer, featuring women in their 40s/50s with teenage or adult children walking besides them at an awareness walk.
But you never see ads in the media about the 21-year-old woman in her junior year of college, getting diagnosed like her mom did a few years earlier. Or the 27-year-old woman climbing the corporate ladder, working her way toward buying a home when she gets diagnosed out of the blue. Or the 32-year-old new mother who thought the lump in her breast was related to her breastfeeding her new baby.
You never hear stories about young women getting breast cancer. But AYA cancer patients are trying to change that narrative.
Sites like Twitter have become a wealth of free information on AYA breast cancer shared by thrivers, survivors, and medical professionals who are concerned with educating the under-40 crowd on how to do self breast exams and identify bodily changes.
Here are a few AYA breast cancer resources you can use for yourself and share with others:
@TeamShan, Breast Cancer Awareness for Young Women National Charity President Lorna Larsen, RN
@EK_Drake, Cancer researcher, PhD, and co-founder of the #AYACSM hashtag (standing for Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Social Media)
Candidly Cancer, A website dedicated to helping newly-diagnosed AYA women with breast cancer at all stages navigate the treatment process
Metastatic breast cancer patients
MBC patients are terminal, but the length of time someone can thrive while undergoing treatment for MBC can be months or years long. You may have seen TV commercials about metastatic breast cancer and the drugs people can take to work toward reducing the progression of the disease.
In most of these ads, the women presented are fun-loving, jovial, and rearing to go to live their lives to the fullest without any debilitating effects. But in reality, many women with metastatic breast cancer are exhausted, worn out, and want to be realistic about their diagnosis and strength while undergoing treatment.
While people may not understand the “lack of positivity” surrounding MBC, it’s important to highlight the straightforward, realistic, cut-and-dry outlook some MBC thrivers share on social media.
Here are a few MBC voices to amplify on Twitter:
@LibbyMBC, a young mother fighting MBC and advocating for others fighting the disease
Although men have significantly lower risk of contracting breast cancer than women, one in every 100 breast cancer diagnoses are attributed to men, making up for 1% of all cases. Low, but not nonexistent. Men whose grandmothers, mothers, or other blood relatives have had a previous breast cancer diagnosis are more at risk than those without.
The risk factors for breast cancer in men are generally the same as with women, with risk factors including age, family history of the disease, genetic mutations, exposure to radiation, and certain conditions in the testicles.
One renowned voice advocating for male breast cancer patients is @malefitness, a Stage IIIb breast cancer and prostate cancer survivor.
6. Don’t fall for the “wearing pink = raising awareness” mindset
If you got 100 breast cancer survivors in a room together and asked what they feel about wearing pink in “support” of breast cancer, the response would be split. Some women love the bright, cheerful, girly vibe that surrounds breast cancer awareness. Others do not.
Because breast cancer isn’t glamorous and cute like ads and social media make it seem, many survivors rally against pinkwashing, which is a marketing tactic businesses use to encourage people to buy their products during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Companies may sell pink-hued clothing or accessories in “support” of breast cancer, but if they’re not also donating a percentage of proceeds to a breast cancer foundation, they’re justbenefiting from pinkwashingat the expense of breast cancer patients.
You can still totally wear pink, but if you don’t already own pink clothing and want to purchase something new, try looking for brands that are partnered with a breast cancer foundation and are dedicating a portion of their proceeds to it.
7. Get tested and don’t ignore the signs
As indicated earlier, breast cancer is frequently touted as a “mom/grandma/auntie” disease that you don’t get until you’re in your late 40s or older – and it’s often waved off as something you can only get if you have a family history of the disease.
This is an outdated misconception, and there’s data to prove it. While only 5 percent of breast cancers diagnoses are attributed to women in their 20s and 30s, the disease is becoming more prevalent among the under-40 crowd. Because testing isn’t recommended for younger women, the disease is often missed or overlooked until it’s in a later stage, which can be more difficult to treat.
Most medical professionals won’t preemptively test women for breast cancer while in their 20s or 30s unless there’s family history or medical factors that indicate a person might be predisposed to the disease. Because of this, you need to be your own advocate and know the signs of breast cancer before it progresses.
You have a voice. Use it for good.
There you have it! It’s not impossible to help, and you have options. Whether financially able to donate money, physically able to donate time, or in a position to help inform others by sharing information online and in-person, we need your voices to amplify ours.
Breast cancer may not affect you directly now – and it may not ever. But chances are that you or someone you know – family, friend, or acquaintance – may be diagnosed with some form of cancer down the road. So speak up for those who are battling this disease now as if it were you or someone you love going through it. Your help truly does more than you know.
As many of you know Breast Cancer Awareness month begins today, October 1st.
As a woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer, my perception of all things breast cancer has changed over the past year. Because of my new ‘status’ as a breast cancer patient during BCA month, I’d like to inform y’all about some things relating to breast cancer and support that you can take into consideration during the month of October (and always!).
Check your breasts
Women, check your breasts. Every month. If something feels off, go to the doctor. Get them checked out. It can happen to you. One in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. And more women are getting breast cancer earlier in life. I found my tumor at 26 and was diagnosed at 27. Despite the recommendation that only women over 45 get regular mammograms, this isn’t just a cancer that happens to grandmas, moms, and aunts. It can happen to any woman at any time. And it does.
Stage 4 needs more
While breast cancer is often highly curable, metastatic breast cancer is not. It is fatal. Women may live for many years with the disease, but so far there is NO cure for metastatic (also known as Stage 4) breast cancer. Stage 4 needs more funding, research, and recognition. Metastatic breast cancer awareness day is October 13th annually, and you can learn more about the disease and how to help.
Watch where you buy your pink “support” gear from
If you want to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness, go for it! But first find out whether where you’re buying pink gear from is actually donating part of the proceeds to breast cancer research foundations or not. If not, find a store that is and buy from them instead.
A lot of companies like to make a quick buck off of people who either think they’re being supportive and don’t know better or off survivors/thrivers looking to buy some gear for themselves. We don’t want this. Wearing pink without actually donating to foundations that help breast cancer patients doesn’t support a damn thing.
Instead, look for a BCRF (Breast Cancer Research Fund)label or partnership acknowledgement on a company’s website. If you don’t see something like this (below), from the Loft, on a company’s page anywhere – but they ARE selling “pink” gear – they are NOT donating to breast cancer research.
Here are a few other companies who are donating proceeds to BCRF or other breast cancer organizations:
Pay attention to what you say and how you say it to women battling breast cancer
Don’t tell someone who gets diagnosed with breast cancer that they’re *lucky* because they got the *good* cancer. While again, breast cancer is highly treatable, treatment – especially for those who have to endure chemo – is painful and life-altering.
I dealt with significant hair loss despite cold capping, severe face and arm rashes, gastrointestinal issues that caused me to drop 40 pounds over four months’ time, nail discoloration, and medication-induced side effects like vomiting, diarrhea, hot flashes, and fatigue. And really, no cancer is “GOOD”.
Also, we don’t want to hear how your cousin’s friend’s grandma “had breast cancer, too!” …and then died from it.
If you’re talking about someone close and personal to you who died from breast cancer (a direct relative, a friend), that’s different. But still, talking about death could be triggering to breast cancer patients – ESPECIALLY those with mets. Ask before sharing a story about someone who died from the same cancer someone is currently going through treatment for.
Do your research to help others
All it takes is a quick Google search: “breast cancer awareness month donations” for multiple options to pop up. If you can’t afford to donate, share a post on social media and help bring awareness to others. Breast cancer isn’t something we should brush off because “oh everyone knows about it”. We need you to speak up, donate, and participate.
And if you’re feeling generous, donate to my Making Strides of Chicago page. All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. On October 16, 2021, I’ll be walking alongside my boyfriend and the team at Advocate Illinois Masonic hospital in acknowledgement of my fight and the fights of other thrivers and survivors.