My mom has breast cancer: what can I do?
©Teodor Lazarev / Adobe Stock
My mom has breast cancer: what can I do?
When I was first told my mom has breast cancer, all I wanted to do was to help her through it. But first I needed to navigate the barrage of insensitive questions and comments from family and friends.
Five years ago I had just gotten into the house from visiting Mom at the hospital in London. I was emotionally exhausted. Before I even had a chance to put my bags down the phone was already ringing. It was my uncle demanding to know all the gritty details about my mom’s breast cancer.
Despite my exhaustion, and anger at this call, I patiently updated him on my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment plan. His first response was, “it sounds hopeless, is her cancer terminal?” My head nearly exploded. But I swallowed my anger and told him her breast cancer wasn’t terminal. I then abruptly hung up the phone.
My mom’s breast cancer, which she had just been diagnosed with, was actually curable as they had caught it very early. She had told her sister in confidence, who then felt compelled to tell everyone else. Some people wanted to keep their cancer a secret, but my aunt robbed her of that privacy,
When I told dad about my uncle’s question, he told me that one way I could help my mom is to stop people from asking her insensitive stupid questions about her breast cancer. I helped my mom in many other ways through her breast cancer, but what I remember most from that experience was what I learned about what not to say to someone with breast cancer. And some of the things our relatives and her friends asked or said were outrageous. What were people thinking?
My mom’s breast cancer; give her time and support
We needed time to get used to the idea of Mom having breast cancer, and so did she. Bombarding people with questions is unpleasant and inappropriate. One of the worst offenders asked her, “How long have you got to live?” Luckily, Mom has a sense of humor and laughed it off by saying, “I’ll be around a lot longer than you, probably.”
When someone has breast cancer, just ask them how they are or if there is anything you can do to help. People with cancer need to come to terms with a diagnosis and need a positive vibe in a conversation. Tell them about an event you went to or something you did at work and keep them up to date with what friends are doing. Stay away from the fatalistic questioning.
Details and more details about my mom’s breast cancer
It was incredible how many people wanted to know the exact details of my mom’s breast cancer and how much had been removed during surgery. To this day I don’t know why some people felt they needed to know this detail, but we found it intrusive.
One old guy down the street had heard about mom and asked her, “so how much of your breast did they take away then?” She didn’t tell us for months, as she knew we would go round to his house and confront him. It offended and upset her.
Now, contrast that with another of mom’s neighbors who said, “I heard about your illness. How are you? If you need anything, let me know.” That’s the difference.
A cancer patient will tell you as much or as little as they want you to know — but you don’t need the detail.
Avoiding a discussion about my mom’s breast cancer
Of all the people we encountered during Mom’s breast cancer, the ones she found most hurtful were those who avoided her. She was really upset one day as she knew a friend had seen her but turned away, probably afraid to say anything. A conversation can just start with a “Hi!” and a smile. Turning away is hurtful for someone coming to terms with a scary illness.
My mom has breast cancer: please don’t talk all-day
There are some people who love visiting the sick but will make a day of it — and expect to be entertained. We dropped subtle hints when people talked all afternoon and drank endless cups of tea.
Visiting someone with cancer is not a day out. People with cancer get fatigued really easily, and someone constantly talking, asking questions, and outstaying their welcome is exhausting. If you are visiting someone with cancer, keep your visit short so they have a chance to get some rest. They’ll appreciate your call.
Getting the conversation right when someone has cancer is vital to support them when they need it the most. By knowing what not to say, you’ll be able to support your friends and family in a positive way.
Jennifer Brown is a freelance writer from Seattle, Washington.