What not to say to someone with breast cancer

Recently my mum was diagnosed with cancer. Words you never want to hear coming from a loved one, “I have cancer”. In my mum’s case, breast cancer.

Hearing the news, I was frightened and confused, but most of all I was just worried about her and how she was feeling.

Typical mum, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like breast cancer slow her down. She was just bummed the doctor wouldn’t let her go on the overseas holiday she’d been planning. She said she was angry, anxious and mostly very afraid at first when the doctor told her, but then she remembered how great the survival rates for breast cancer are now. In fact, Mum is surrounded by breast cancer survivors in our family and friendship groups: her own mother, my Nana, was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer only 18 months ago.

For women who were diagnosed years ago, the experience was isolating. It just wasn’t as prevalent back then and it was often a journey travelled alone. My aunty hid her entire battle with cancer from her colleagues and kids because she didn’t want other people to think she was going to die.

At first I thought this big group of survivors as her support network was the best possible situation for Mum, but now I’m not so sure.

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Instead of listening to her and validating her feelings, everyone just wants to relive their own journey or the journey of others. Dolling out advice and cutting her off, because they survived or someone they know did, telling her “don’t be silly” and “nobody dies from breast cancer these days”. They mean well but the reality is anybody, no matter what cancer they have, has the right to be afraid if that’s how they want to feel. She has a long journey ahead and like many women going through breast cancer, death is not the only thing she fears. There’s a gamut of psychological and self esteem issues that arise for women who lose their breasts or their hair or bear the scars of chemo. My mum’s by no means vain, but she was Miss Hinterland two years running before she met my dad.

What I’ve learned on this journey is that positivity is important, but so is empathy. No matter how upbeat and optimistic someone with cancer is, they still need to feel comfortable to share their fears and insecurities in a safe way where they feel supported and most importantly, heard. Listening, even in the middle of the night, is the most powerful thing you can do for someone on this journey. They don’t need your opinions or advice, they’ll ask for it if they do, they just need you to tell them that you care and remind them that they’re not alone.


Have you or someone you know had breast cancer? Do you agree with this writer about how support is sometimes misplaced? What sort of support did you have or have you given to a friend with breast cancer? Share your stories and thoughts below.