When a person doesn’t know what not to say

This entry was written by Jackie Roth, PhD. Jackie is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who was diagnosed with Stage III A breast cancer at the age of 28. Every other Friday, throughout the entire year of 2011, Jackie will share a blog entry about her breast cancer experience. This year-long blog series is in honor of LBBC’s 20th anniversary.

To read Jackie’s previous entries, enter “ Jackie Roth” in the search box on this site.

Although we might not always show it, as survivors we can be a bit more sensitive to other people’s actions and words than we were before diagnosis.  So what are we supposed to do when someone says something that offends us? 

Just a few days ago I went shopping for a nightshirt at a well-known women’s intimates store.  When I put my nightshirt down at the register to pay the cashier asked me if I would like to purchase a bra with it.  I politely declined and dug for my wallet to pay for the shirt.  She asks me again “Are you sure?  We have bras as low as 19.50!”  Again, I said “no, thank you.”  The cashier continues to push and with attitude she told me “look if you buy a bra right now, I will give you $10 off!”  Luckily by that time she was handing me my receipt and I just turned around to leave. 

As I walked away I thought about what I could have said to her.  In response to her nagging I could have said “well I had breast cancer, had a double mastectomy and now I don’t need to wear a bra!  So I will just take the nightshirt today!”  That would have probably made her feel really bad.  But enough is enough!   Maybe she was short on commission that day…

In addition to my recent shopping experience, you would probably not believe some of the things that have been said to me and some of my survivor friends in the past year.  What offends me, however, might not be the same thing that offends another survivor and vice versa.  We cannot control what other people say to us, although sometimes we wish we could.  What we can control are our reactions to what they say.

For the past year, I’ve just kept my mouth shut when someone offends me, as evidenced by my polite reaction to the cashier.  I think this is for a variety of reasons.  One, I do not have the energy for a confrontation.  I don’t want to argue probably because I have a feeling it might lead to tears so I brush it off.  Two, sometimes I actually don’t realize that something offended me until after I think about it for a bit, and then it seems  too late to address it. 

My quiet nature has really allowed my friends and family to stick up for me when I can’t do it myself.  I guess instead of focusing on the negative things that have been said to me I focus on the positive.  My favorite thing to hear from people other than survivors is something along the lines of “I don’t really understand everything you are going through but how can I help?” 

Our cancer journeys have made each of us so strong in so many ways.  But just because we might come across as having tough exteriors, I would recommend treading lightly because we might be more sensitive than we appear. 

To read Jackie’s previous entries, enter “ Jackie Roth” in the search box on this site.

Have you ever been in a situation like Jackie? Tell us how you dealt with an innocent comment that sparked a trigger and brought you to a sensitive place because of your breast cancer diagnosis. Comment here or on our Facebook page.

16 thoughts on “When a person doesn’t know what not to say

  1. I might be small but mighty, you just give me the sign and I will give all those people a piece of my mind (and yours). Love ya sweetpea!

  2. I know what you mean. People don’t mean it…but once when I was wearing cotton foobs, a guy was leering at my chest. I wanted to take them out and throw them at him and shout, they’re COTTON, you fool!” But I didn’t 🙂

  3. I have to say, I always used to be afraid to speak my mind worried about an argument and me in tears. I found out that I just tell them how it is. I would have told the lady at the counter: “well sorry mam but you see I can’t wear the bras you sell here because I’m a breast cancer patient and they don’t fit.” I know it sounds harsh but sometimes people need to realize not everyone is the same or in the same situation. And for the pink kitchen, “I would have thrown them”. Like I said before, before cancer you wouldn’t catch me saying anything now I speak my mind politely but I tell it how it is.

  4. I have had my feelings hurt a couple of times too, but what really bothers me is that it was by comments that my family members made. I have been struggling on how to deal with the situation because I just haven’t been able to let it go.

  5. So sorry that happened to you. I would have just told her I had a mastectomy and am no longer in need of “commercial” bras! One comment that still shocks me after 18 months was from a friend that stated, “Oh well, if you die, at least you know the Lord and where you will be going.” You don’t say that to a bald, breast-less woman fighting hard to grow closer to the Lord and finish the battle.

  6. One of the things I love about the breast cancer community is knowing that you can share a struggle with someone else who truly understands. A few months ago I was out with friends for the night and was approached by 2 different men seperately who told that I looked like a lesbian. I had a cute dress on but there was little I could do about my short hair after chemo. As a young straight single woman, this was difficult to hear. I cannot say I handled very politely or that it didn’t involve tears, but I do appreciate the reminder that despite our tough exterior we have to take such encounters in stride.

  7. What bothered me the most during the time that friends and colleagues were just learning about my diagnosis was that for some reason it seemed to trigger a need for some people to tell me about the other people they know or knew who had breast cancer or prostate cancer and for whom the outcome was not good.
    Why do people do that? I never knew what to say, so usually just nodded. Now–four years later, I am much stronger and I believe, I hope, I would tell them that it wasn’t helpful to hear that, and I encourage others in a similar situation now to speak up.I wish I had.

  8. Luckily I haven’t had many of these situations yet but what did bother me was when I initially told friends of my diagnosis, they responded with “Oh, you’ll be fine”. You would think that I’d want to hear this but when I kept hearing it, I felt like they were dismissing the whole thing as if it wasn’t a big deal. It sure feels like a big deal when you are going through it. I know that they meant well but I finally told some friends that it bothered me and then I felt bad that I said anything as it made them feel bad. I do get it. I probably said the same to others who had cancer. But my perspective has changed now. Go see 50/50. You understand how family and friends feel a bit more.

  9. We all have to remember that we are strong, we survived. I would not be offended by comments from people that have no idea what I’ve been through; they don’t know, plain and simple. I may have told the woman in the bra store that I had a mastectomy and had no need for her bras. Then she may think the next time she opens her mouth. The same with the men in the bar-tell them you just went through chemo, then they would realize they just put their feet in their mouth. Most people do not think before they say something. Pointing out their mistake may teach them to think before speaking (and again it may not). But to be offended or brought to tears from someone else’s stupidity is not for me. I am stronger than that. In fact, I have tried to look at my plight with some humor, it’s the best medicine. kp

    • I agree… a sense of humor is key. But, that doesnt mean you are always able to brush off all bad experiences or not be emotionally affected by insensitive comments. I would be lying to myself if I tried to pretend it didn’t bother me even though I knew that the comments were stupid and the guys making the comments were jerks. While I can’t control others, and quite honestly cannot always control my reactions either, I do find consolation and solidarity in knowing that I am not alone. Thanks LBBC!

  10. I agree, humor is absolutely needed! Also , I try and remember that no one can offend me or make me feel bad without my permission. As I have Metastatic Breast Cancer, am almost 81, I just don’t have time for anything negative. If you have viewed the video ” faces of mbc”, I am the 1st face you see and hear. I love to play the organ, and had a dream come true this past Sunday, when I shared a program with a professional organist at our local Country Club!

  11. I guess we agree that it would be good to let people know gently or not so gently that what they have said is insensitive–in the hope at least that they would not be so insensitive to others in the future. And also we would benefit from knowing we were courageous enough to be honest. However, let’s face it: cancer is threatening and scary. I bet that most of us when first diagnosed and then when going through arduous treatment (and particularly when we are hairless) are pretty fragile and easily “brought to tears by someone else’s stupidity.” So anonymous–I’m glad you are so strong. But you know what? Some of us are not so strong–or were not. We need encouragement, not a veiled criticism. And really–even now that I have recovered and regained my hair, I fail to see the humor in it all.

  12. I had a situation when I was going through my chemo. I was having breakfast at Burger King, an elderly man shared with me his success with a weight loss program he had used and also told me the program was available through most health insurance. I was totally shocked and very upset. He didn’t seem to recognize that I was wearing a wig, just had a mastectomy and half way through my chemo. My first thought was to embarrass him, but then I thought, he just doesn’t know. I just congradulated him on his success and politely declined his offer. I said a silent prayer for him, (and one for myself). I just realized that God had smiled on me because I survived! My family and friends supported me through my illness, and insensitive comments from others don’t matter. Keep your head up and look to the Father for your strength.

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  14. Dr, Jackie, I am glad you are doing well, and I feel sure that you did not mean any harm with this post. But please reconsider the “can’t control what others say” theme. It is degrading, and it leaves others feeling helpless instead of empowered. Most of the time, when people object to something offensive that someone says, it is simply a defensive move, an action to stand up for oneself and reclaim personal dignity that has been wounded. It is not an effort to manipulate or control the speaker. Also, please bear in mind that there are some cruel people out there who can and will successfully control others. Manipulation, brainwashing, persuasion, whatever you want to call it. Finally, some people really do have significant trouble modulating their responses to stimuli. It is almost involuntary sometimes. Again, I wish you well on your road to good health, but anytime someone starts with the hurtful “can’t control” line, I strive to gently educate them on it.

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