15 Worst Things You Can Say to Someone Battling Breast Cancer

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Think before you speak

When you find out someone has breast cancer, it can be hard to know what to say. Even if you have the best of intentions, it’s easy to blurt out something that’s less-than-helpful. “People don’t mean to be insensitive,” says Alyson Moadel, PhD, director of the psychosocial oncology program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “The news just scares them, and they don’t know the right thing to say.” While not every person will object to all of the following phrases, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and try to avoid these.

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“My sister/mother/friend had breast cancer.”

“Everyone’s got a cancer story,” says Dennis Citrin, MD, PhD, author of Knowledge is Power: What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer. While hearing your friend’s diagnosis may seem like a good time to share the hardships of others, you have to realize all breast cancer patients aren’t alike. “There can be subtle differences between the types of breast cancer that one person’s experience may have no relevance for another,” Dr. Citrin says. Every individual breast cancer patient will have her own unique struggles to face, so avoid relating the negatives, or even positives, of someone else’s condition.
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“Are you going to lose your hair?”

Most women view hair as a link to femininity, and the idea you might lose it can be very hard to bear. Even for a patient who’s already thinning up top, best not to make a comment related to hair at all. “We all want to be told we look good,” says Melanie Young, breast cancer survivor and author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide to Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer. If you notice your friend is looking particularly nice one day, make it a point to let her know. Another good bet: invite her to test out some new makeup with you and turn it into a fun day of pampering.
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“Will you lose your breasts?”

Having a mastectomy is not necessary in many cases, so don’t assume it’s the norm for every breast cancer patient. “The new paradigm of treatment isn’t focused on immediately sending patients to the surgeon,” Dr. Citrin says. Most doctors will biopsy the tumor before determining the best course of action. Emerging research indicates that 10-year survival rates are equal among bilateral mastectomy and lumpectomy with radiation patients, so you may begin hearing of fewer women having both breasts removed. Bottom line: She may not yet know whether or not she needs a mastectomy, so safer not to bring it up. On the flip side, you shouldn’t try to make a mastectomy out to be positive either. “I had people tell me, ‘I wish my boob job was covered by insurance,'” Young says. “But do you wish you had cancer?”

RELATED: Do You Need a Mammogram?

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“Do you think hormone therapy or weight gain caused it?”

Like any type of cancer, there are many breast cancer risk factors that have been discovered from looking at patterns across large populations of women. But no one can say for sure what causes any individual’s specific case. Sometimes DNA is damaged and cancer gets a start for no reason at all. “A lot of people feel anxiety when someone they know is diagnosed with breast cancer, so they try to explain it away,” says Marisa Weiss, MD, a breast cancer survivor and director of breast radiation oncology at Lankenau Medical Center near Philadelphia and founder of Breastcancer.org. Try to avoid a “what if” line of questioning.

RELATED: 25 Breast Cancer Myths Busted

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“Are you sure you want to try that treatment?”

When breast cancer patients are first diagnosed, some family members feel like they need to take control of the situation, Moadel says. That includes trying to make decisions when it comes to how they should take their medications or what treatments might be best. This is one area where the breast cancer patient really needs to call the shots. “Cancer doesn’t mean she’ll want to stop doing the things most meaningful for her,” Dr. Weiss says. No matter what treatment lies ahead for your loved one, keep in mind she ultimately know the best path for herself.
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“You don’t look sick.”

Other people might try to downplay a loved one’s condition, Moadel says. Making things out to be fine, however, isn’t as uplifting as you’d think. Whether you’re dealing with early stage or relapsed/recurrent breast cancer, it’s still a scary thing. “Treating their illness like a minor ailment doesn’t touch on how they’re truly feeling,” Moadel says. A person could be battling it for years to come, so you can’t just push those fears aside. When a loved one is open to discussing their illness, don’t be afraid to share the sadness with them and offer support when needed.

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Saying nothing at all

After a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for some people to completely avoid the topic or stop visiting all together, Moadel says. Hearing the words can be so shocking you might not know what to say at first. Start by asking what you can do to help. “The best supporters are the ones who can listen and respond to what the patient needs,” Moadel says. Just showing you can be there to help a loved one cope is what matters most.
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“Everything will be OK.”

Being reassured is confusing because a lot of cancer patients still have a year of treatment in front of them,” Dr. Weiss says. And each stage of breast cancer comes with different forms of treatment. For example, a stage I patient may have the lump removed and some radiation while stage III might require chemotherapy or surgery, according to the American Cancer Society. Not many breast cancer patients want to be told what to do either, so avoid statements like “Be positive” that come off as commands. “It’s easy for you to say. You don’t have to worry about feeling ill all day or the bills,” Young says. Not every patient’s journey will be smooth, so it’s important to show you accept your loved one’s condition and the treatment she’s about to face.

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“It must run in your family.”

Though some breast cancer is tied to genetics, it’s not always clear-cut. According to the National Cancer Institute, mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for about 5 to 10% of all breast cancers. So calling out someone’s condition as a “family thing” is insensitive and may not be accurate. It also gives your friend more cause to worry about the other members of her family tree. “When they are told they have breast cancer, women immediately think about their own daughters,” Moadel says.

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