My mom has breast cancer: what can I do?

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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 about my mom's breast cancer 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 my 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.

"We needed time to get used to the idea of my Mom having breast cancer, and so did she."

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

During my mom's journey with breast cancer, it was the friends who chose to avoid her that caused her the most pain. There was a particular incident that deeply upset her when she noticed a close friend deliberately turning away upon seeing her, possibly out of fear or uncertainty about what to say. It was a heartbreaking moment for my mom, who longed for the comfort and support of her friends during such a challenging time.

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple "Hi!" accompanied by a warm smile to initiate a conversation. Turning away, on the other hand, can be incredibly hurtful for someone who is grappling with the emotional weight of a scary illness. Mom yearned for the understanding and reassurance of her friends, hoping they would acknowledge her struggle and provide a comforting presence. 

Unfortunately, their avoidance only added to her feelings of isolation and vulnerability.

It is important to remember that when a loved one is facing a difficult situation like breast cancer, your presence and support matter the most. Even if you're unsure about what to say, reaching out with a genuine greeting can make a world of difference. By showing up and being there for them, you offer solace and remind them that they are not alone. Let your compassion shine through, and together, we can help those with breast cancer find strength and comfort in the face of adversity.

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.

"Empathy and understanding are the anchors that guide us as we navigate the storm when mom has breast cancer."

Article by
Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown, the author of "My mom has breast cancer: what can I do?," is a freelance writer from Seattle, Washington.


"So how much of your breast did they take away then?" | ©Teodor Lazarev / Adobe Stock