Hollis’s “Do’s and Don’ts” For Talking With a Friend With Breast Cancer

There are no rules for talking with a friend who has breast cancer, of course. These are just my ideas. But I’m pretty sure a lot of women and men with breast cancer (or any kind of cancer) would agree with them. Use your own judgment. Ask yourself, Will these words comfort my friend?

Don’t ask, Did you quit smoking/drinking/eating red meat, etc.? This implies that your friend may have caused her or his own cancer, or at the very least can make it better by doing exactly the “right” things. Any way you cut it, this is unkind.

Do offer to bring a fabulous meal over (or to take her out for a meal). What does she crave, and what night can you drop it by, at what time? People often say, “I want to help. Let me know what you need.” But most of us are not going to call up friends and say, “I’m totally exhausted. Could you bring dinner tonight?” So just do it already!

Don’t try to dissuade your friend from having and expressing anger, fear or other “negative” feelings. Many of us think we can’t be honest with our friends because they want to “fix” our feelings. (I shared a feeling about my cancer experience with a friend once and she said, “OH, I wouldn’t feel like THAT!” Really? Are you sure? Get back to me on that if you ever have cancer, ok?)

Do just listen. Really. Try saying, “It makes total sense to me that you feel that way.” Touch her hand or shoulder, or offer a hug. “I am so sorry you are going through this.”

Don’t tell stories about people you know who’ve had breast cancer, the bad stories or the good stories, or even your own story, unless she asks for it. The bad stories will add to her terror. The good stories may be just as frightening, if they don’t match up with her experience. Ditto your story.

Do encourage your friend to tell you her story. Hers is the one that really matters to her, right now. After her surgery or first radiation or chemo session, ask, “Would you like to talk about what it was like?” Sometimes we feel freer to tell a friend than family members about such things; we may feel we are over-burdening family with our constant “cancer talk.”

Don’t give advice. Don’t tell her what supplements to take, what alternative practitioners to see, how much sleep to get, what kind of water filter to install—that is, unless you want to take complete responsibility for the effects (or lack thereof). (I got sooooo tired of, “Have you tried this?” “I think you should take such-and-such.” “Have you read this book?” Even from other women with breast cancer.)

Do encourage her to take good care of herself, to treat herself well physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ask her, “What would make you feel better today? How can I help you do that?”

Don’t ask, “Are you having a lumpectomy or mastectomy?” or “Are you going to have reconstruction?” “Can I see your scar?” “What’s your chance of recurrence?” These are very private matters. Let her bring them up with you if she wants to. (A complete stranger once asked me such a question in a business meeting. Honestly.)

Don’t offer clichés, such as, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or “God is testing you, but you’re up to the challenge,” or “Stay strong!” etc. Those statements minimize the individual’s experience, which is unique to her or him. It’s the equivalent of giving a grownup pabulum.

Do be honest about your feelings about your friend’s illness. Telling someone you are frightened for them, that you love them and treasure them, that their illness reminds you of your own mortality, is appropriate and will likely be appreciated.

Don’t feel you have to be serious all the time. Having cancer gets old. Talking about it gets even older.

Do bring over a funny movie to watch, send silly greeting cards, cut out cartoons to share, come over dressed as a sheep or a nun or a former president. Talk about ordinary stuff: the great book you’re reading, your crappy boss, the new café down the street. Don’t censor yourself; be YOU.