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A woman uses an umbrella to dodge raindrops of unhelpful comments

Community Shares: How Other People Respond to the News of Advanced Breast Cancer

When it comes to talking about difficult subjects, few people lean in. There aren’t many topics more difficult for others to talk about than cancer, which explains why people with advanced breast cancer hear so many uncomfortable responses when they open up about what’s going on.

Part of the problem is that folks aren’t talking about these conversations—about what is helpful to hear, and what absolutely is not helpful to hear.

We wanted to find out more about how these conversations are going for you, so we reached out on the AdvancedBreastCancer.net Facebook page. We asked you to fill in the blank: “When I tell someone that I have advanced breast cancer, the response that I usually get is _______________.”

Nearly 100 community members responded. Here’s what you had to say.

“You look great!”

Comments about how good you look may come from those who have good intentions, but they often don’t feel good to receive because they miss the mark. When our life is at stake, what’s important is not how we look. That’s trivial. But, this comment is not about us. Rather, it shows the speaker’s inability to engage with what’s really happening. Cancer can be a painful topic to discuss, and too often, our friends and acquaintances may not have the emotional capacity to be with us as we deal with the pain. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love us. It just means they don’t know yet how to be with us in this uncomfortable space. The good news is that not everyone will avoid the topic, so hopefully, we can find the people we can connect with to talk openly about what’s going on.

“Well, you look wonderful.”

“You look great!”

“But you don’t look sick!”

“You’ll be ok.”

This is another tough comment. At first glance, it seems like it could be supportive, but it’s really not. It’s dismissive. This type of comment doesn’t acknowledge the pain and fear that come along with cancer. One way to handle this type of comment is to ask the speaker if they recognize that you might not be OK, and is that OK with them? Sometimes what we need is to be seen. When we’re struggling, we feel seen when people see and acknowledge that struggle. It’s OK to ask for the kind of support you need, whatever it looks like, so long as we know that not everyone is capable of giving us that support.

“You’ll be OK. Lots of women have it and they are OK!”

“You don’t look sick. Do what the doctor says and you’ll be fine.”

“Oh, you’re strong. You’ll beat it.”

“Just quit eating sugar.”

Oh, advice! So many people think that advice is helpful. That it will fix cancer. But anyone living with cancer knows there is no quick fix. If you’re able to just shrug off the advice, go for it. If the advice-giver is someone you’re close to, you can experiment with being honest and letting him or her know how you feel when they share advice. Some people will be able to hear you. For those who can, they may be open to suggestions on what it would look like to actually show you real support.

“You need to stay positive.”

“Try this _____diet.”

“I read that asparagus juice cures it!”

“Just quit eating sugar. I read an article about people curing their cancer with diet.”

“I’ll pray for you.”

Many of you shared that this is one of the more common responses you hear. Hopefully, whether you’re religious or not, you can hear the love in this answer. People may not know how to help, but they know they can pray. Plus, studies have shown that you don’t have to be a religious believer yourself to benefit from someone else praying for you.

“I’ll pray for you.”

“I am sorry and praying for you!”

“How can I help?”

There isn’t a perfect way to respond to hearing about someone’s cancer diagnosis, but this is about as close as it gets. To acknowledge your pain, and then ask how to show up for you demonstrates kindness. For some of us, it might be difficult to accept help, but this is the time to learn to start saying yes. Say yes to rides to the doctor, or to meet up for coffee and actually open up about what’s going on. You may want to ask a friend to come over and just be with you on a hard day. There is no limit to what you can ask for. Anything you ask for is OK.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry. How can I help?”

“I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“Can I help?”

Connection

We want to say thank you to everyone who opened up about how their communities are responding. It’s our hope that by sharing these responses, we strengthen the connection between community members, and help enlighten people about what to say to show love and support.

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