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What NOT to Say to Someone Battling Breast Cancer

We Understand It’s Tough to Know What to Say to Someone With Cancer

This month, Second To Nature is blogging about what NOT to say to someone battling breast cancer. When people about whom we deeply care are on cancer journeys, it’s often hard to interact with them. It’s not because we don’t want to, but we often find ourselves at a loss for words when in their company.

As we explained last month, it’s important to continue communicating with loved ones on their cancer journeys. That said, sometimes what we say isn’t always helpful. When you’re talking with a loved one battling breast cancer, avoid saying:

  • “How are you?”
  • “You’ll be okay” and other cheerleading phrases
  • Statements of unfounded empathy like “I know what you’re going through”
  • “Maybe you should have” statements
  • Nothing

Avoid Asking “How Are You?” and Saying “Maybe You Should Have _____”

We’re not suggesting that asking “how are you” is insensitive or specifically inappropriate. However, asking a patient “how are you” is too open ended. Instead of asking “how are you,” ask things like “how is your treatment going?” You could also add “feeling” to the question and ask “how are you feeling?”

Saying “Maybe You Should Have” is Like Blaming Cancer on the Patient

Maybe you’re talking to someone you know who hasn’t practiced healthy habits. You might be tempted to say “maybe you should have” and point out the healthier choices that person could’ve made. Even if science supports unhealthy choices as possible cancer causes, never say “maybe you should have” to someone battling cancer. It’s also not supportive to say “maybe you should have gone to the doctor sooner” or other such statements. Saying such things sounds like you’re shaming the patient or, worse, blaming the patient for getting cancer.

Cheerleading Phrases and Unfounded Empathy Often Aren’t Helpful

Avoid saying things like “everything is going to be fine” and “you’ll be okay.” Such cheerleading phrases may feel like encouragement to the one giving them, but not to the recipient.  The last thing a patient whose been throwing up all night, and feels terrible wants to hear are cheerleading phrases. Rather than saying cheerleading phrases as encouragement, say something like “we’re going to get through this together.” That’s not a cheerleading phrase as much one that communicates your support on their cancer journey.

Unfounded Empathy Diminishes Cancer Patients’ Personal Experiences

Statements of unfounded empathy like “I know what you’re going through” might seem empathetic to you. Really, though, you don’t know what the person is going through, specifically. You might have had cancer yourself, and, therefore, think this type of phrase is not unfounded empathy. However, everyone’s cancer journey is different. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes diminishes that patient’s personal experiences.

The Truly Worst Thing You Can Say to Breast Cancer Patients is Nothing

Saying nothing about a patient’s breast cancer journey is the worst of all communication choices. When you say nothing, it can feel like abandonment, and come across as hurtful. Rather than saying nothing, be honest, and tell the patient that you feel awkward or uncomfortable. That lets the patient know you care, and just don’t want to hurt his or her feelings.


For mastectomy education information and to learn about custom breast prosthesis, call Second To Nature in Roanoke, VA, at (540) 366-2711. Follow us on Facebook for updates. We’d be glad to further describe what NOT to say to someone battling breast cancer.