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What you shouldn’t say to someone diagnosed with cancer

What you shouldn’t say to someone diagnosed with cancer

Nearly 300,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Each of those people have a circle of family and friends who are also affected by that diagnosis.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating for the person diagnosed. It also can be difficult to know what to do and say to your friend or family member who received that news.

Here are some tips for helping your loved one navigate that time. Each person and each diagnosis is different, but it’s important to be sure to talk to your loved one.

Do: Ask permission. Before you visit, give advice or even ask probing questions, ask if it’s OK. And be OK if the answer is no.

Don’t: Minimize or share false clichés. Saying things like, “At least you’re alive,” or “You’ll be fine,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” minimizes what your friend is going through and may make them feel less likely to share information with you.

Do: Listen. This can be challenging, especially if you’re a “fix-it” type of person. Try to avoid cheerleading. Just listen as your friend shares their feelings.

Don’t: Give advice unless you’re asked. It may be irresistible to research your friends’ diagnosis and treatment options but realize that not all cancers are treated the same way. What is appropriate for treatment for one type of cancer and person may not be appropriate for another. Respect the decisions your friend and their physician are making together.

Do: Support your loved one’s decisions. Even if you don’t agree with the treatment plan, even if you share decision making, it is your friend or loved one’s body and, ultimately, their decision.

Don’t: Disappear. Continuing friendships and regular activities can help your friend find their new normal during treatment and after.

Do: Support the caregiver. If you’re not the primary caregiver, you can offer to take on some tasks, like driving to appointments, cleaning or cooking meals to make things easier for the patient and caregiver.

Don’t: Process your own feelings in front of your loved one. Learning of a friend’s diagnosis can be difficult to hear. Acknowledge those feelings but cope with them before seeing your friend.

Do: Think about it from your loved one’s perspective. Don’t comment on appearance changes or any side effects of cancer or treatment. Think about what your friend would want to hear.

Don’t: Ignore uncomfortable topics and feelings. A cancer diagnosis is scary, and treatment can be an emotional roller coaster. Allow your friend to be sad and to express those feelings.

Want to learn more about your risk for breast cancer? Take a free online assessment here.

Dr. Jodi Brehm is breast surgeon at Aurora Health Care.

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About the Author

Dr. Jodi Brehm
Dr. Jodi Brehm

Dr. Jodi Brehm is an Aurora Health Care breast surgeon at Aurora Medical Center in Kenosha.