Is it okay to ask personal questions about breast cancer?

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Discover how to navigate personal questions about breast cancer with sensitivity. Gain insights into appropriate and inappropriate inquiries, alternative approaches to sensitive topics, and offering support.

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.

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.

Grandma Stella and the Pink-less Era

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

Grandma Stella did survive, and boy, did she do it in style! She was an amazingly strong and confident woman with no issues voicing her opinion on breast cancer and every other topic as loudly as needed. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, 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. Can you imagine that bedside manner?

Living Life to the Fullest, No Missing Moments

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

However, breast cancer did take one thing from her. It took her ability to be private about her breasts. It's natural to have questions and be curious, but there's a fine line between awkward and inappropriate. When speaking to someone with breast cancer, it’s normal for some conversations to be uncomfortable and feel out of place. So let's learn from some things that made Grandma Stella feel singled out and find better alternatives.

"Hey, 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, let's switch gears a bit. Instead of the blunt inquiry, 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.

"Breast cancer did take one thing from her. It took her ability to be private about her breasts. "

The Odds and Ends of Mortality

Now, let's tackle another personal question about breast cancer that might not be as well-received. "What are your odds?" 

Grandma Stella always said she wasn’t unaware of her mortality but 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?”. Trust me, treatment is exhausting, and small, 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?" Let's keep things lighthearted!

The Myth of "Free" Fake Boobs

Ah, the topic of fake boobs and breast cancer! I have mixed feelings about these types of personal questions about breast cancer. Sure, fake boobs can sound exciting! 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 she did feel different than before.

She eventually got the breast 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, let's take a different approach. Try simply complimenting them on how great they look. They may be proud of their decision and come right out and tell you anyway.

Read more: My mom had breast cancer

The Grand Finale: Offering Support

So, my dear readers, let's recap. Know someone diagnosed with breast cancer? Are you asking yourself is it okay to ask personal questions about 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 just a person with cancer. Trust me, they'll appreciate the support and the lightheartedness you bring to their journey.

Now, let's toast Grandma Stella, the queen of breast cancer survival and humor. May we all learn from her strength, resilience, and ability to navigate personal questions with a dose of laughter. Cheers to you, Grandma Stella!

Article by
Jasmine Henry

Jasmine W. Gordon (née Jasmine Henry), the author of "Is it okay to ask personal questions about breast cancer," is a Seattle-based tech writer, essayist, and big data consultant with professional interests in energy, data analytics, and big data technologies.


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