Is it okay to ask personal questions about breast cancer?

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Picture of Grandma Stella dressed in yellow, with a cap on her hand, gesticulating with her hands in response to personal questions about breast cancer.

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Is it okay to ask personal questions about breast cancer?

What personal questions about breast cancer are okay to ask and what are not? When asking personal questions about breast cancer think first. Here are some lessons from my grandma Stella about navigating personal questions about breast cancer.

In the late 60’s, my great-grandmother, Stella, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, there was no pink movement. Cancer was a hushed word and a shaken head because, frankly, no one expected you to make it out. It was often kept a secret.

Grandma Stella did, and she did it in stride. She was an amazingly strong and confident woman, who had no issues voicing her opinion as loud as it needed to be. When she was diagnosed, the typical treatment was a radical full double mastectomy, and as she put it, “good luck I hope you don’t die” from her doctor.

After she beat cancer (Rock-star!), grandma Stella lived to be 94. She didn’t slow down until the day she was gone. Cancer taught her to live life to its fullest, and she never missed a moment to make her days count.

However, cancer did take one thing from her. It took her ability to be private about her breasts. It is natural to have questions and be curious, but there is a fine between awkward and inappropriate. When speaking to someone with breast cancer, it’s normal for some conversations to be uncomfortable and to feel a bit out of place. Here are some things said that made grandma Stella feel singled out, and some things you could say instead.

“Grandma Stella, do you get to keep your breasts?”

One year at Thanksgiving, while we were sitting around the turkey, my grandma cracked a joke. “Hey, neither I nor this turkey had much breast to speak of, and now, it doesn’t matter.” Everyone laughed and continued on with the celebration, but in my mind, I remembered her speaking of a woman from church who asked her if she was going to lose them. My grandmother told me it felt as if they were concerned only with her body parts instead of her health as a whole.

If you find yourself wanting to ask this personal question about breast cancer, try a simple “Have you needed surgical intervention?” That way, they don’t feel as though you’re commenting on something they may have lost.

“What are your odds?”

Try to avoid this question, grandma Stella always said she wasn’t unaware of her mortality, but she wasn’t about to speak about it to strangers. Instead of asking, let them come to you. If they wish to talk about something like this, they will. Try asking if the person needs help. The “can I vacuum for you?”, “Can I mow your grass?”.

Treatment is exhausting and small, but meaningful tasks can be so helpful. Plus, the conversation is much less threatening than “Hey, how sure are they that you’re going to die?” Chances are, they will let you know if their lives are in jeopardy.

“Hey, at least you get fake boobs for free!”

I have mixed feelings on these types of personal questions about breast cancer, because yeah! Fake boobs! But no, they’re not free, contrary to popular belief. In fact, grandma Stella denied the reconstructive implants at first. She felt that she didn’t need breasts to prove she was a woman. She quickly decided that she had nothing to prove to others, but did feel different than before.

She got the implants, and loved them, but even though she wasn’t a private person, having the whole world know she had “fake breasts” really bothered her, and it bothered her, even more, when those who knew she’d had cancer asked about it. So, instead of asking if they have implants, try simply complimenting them on how great they look. They may be proud of them and come right out and tell you anyway.

Conclusion: Don’t ask probing questions, instead, offer your support.

Know someone diagnosed with breast cancer? Think before asking personal questions about breast cancer that may be more personal than they wish to share. Offer encouragement and help if they need it. Most of all, treat them like a person – and not like a person with cancer.

Article by
Jasmine Henry

Jasmine W. Gordon (née Jasmine Henry) is a Seattle-based tech writer, essayist, and big data consultant with professional interests in energy, data analytics, and big data technologies.


"Hey, neither I nor this turkey had much breast to speak of, and now, it doesn't matter."