Is your breast cancer terminal? Questions not to scare my mum with when she is experiencing chemotherapy.

Mom's breast cancer : angry, enraged senior woman yelling at a landline office phone, unhappy with being asked rude questions about her cancer, giving off steam and smoke

"So how much of your breast did they take away then?"


©Teodor Lazarev / Adobe Stock

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Five years ago I had just got into the house from visiting Mom at the hospital in London. The phone was already ringing. It was an aunt demanding details about Mom’s breast cancer: “it sounds hopeless, is her breast cancer terminal?”

Mom’s breast cancer, which she had just been diagnosed with, was actually curable. She had told a relative in confidence, who then felt compelled to tell everyone else. And some of the things our relatives and her friends asked or said were outrageous. What were people thinking?

Based on that experience, here’s what I learned about what not to say to someone with cancer.

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 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.

Read more: Laying bare the emotions of talking about cancer

Details and more details about mum’s breast cancer

It was incredible how many people wanted to know the exact details of Mom’s breast cancer and how much had been removed during surgery. To this day I don’t know why some people need 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.

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.

Author. Rachael.R
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