Randi Rentz: What to Say (and What Not to Say) when Your Friend is Diagnosed

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are asked to support and honor women from all over who are living with the disease. Whether it’s wearing your pink ribbon, donating to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, or simply talking with a friend or loved one who has been diagnosed, you are doing your part. Today, the LBBC Blog welcomes back avid writer, Randi Rentz, as she discusses the ups and downs of comforting a newly diagnosed woman.

A friend called recently. She had just learned that another friend of ours was diagnosed with breast cancer. She could not stop crying after she received the news and had not yet called our friend to offer her…what? What is the right thing to say? What, as a good friend, do you do? My friend called me, thinking I had all the correct answers. She wanted to know if she should stop by our friend’s house (in between sobs). She also wanted to know if she should leave her alone. Seriously. What to say? What to do?

As a survivor, I was touched by the many people who reached out to me, but sometimes, I really had to wonder, what people were thinking. I should have written down some of the things people said to me. Wishful thinking. Although people had good intentions during my diagnosis, I really yearned for friends and acquaintances to “Think Pink” before speaking the “Pink Language.” Let’s face it, my friends were well-meaning, but I was irked.

As we all know, pink is the universal color for breast cancer. It is everywhere. I’ve always loved the color pink, all tones, tints and tinges of it. What can I say? I’m a girlie-girl who loves any shade of pink; especially hot pink. It’s way bolder than blush-and not the least bit bashful. Although I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, the color pink, please don’t tell me pink is my color; especially the same day of my diagnosis. Yup.

Empathy is wonderful, but please don’t say, “You MUST live!” (Duh!!!) or “Are you going to die?” (Geez!!!) And, PU-LEAZZZE don’t say, “My aunt, friend and/or grandmother died of breast cancer.” Ugh!

(I digress…sorry) To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted other than to inch into my bedroom and wait for my doctor to call me with the next bit of medical information. I was completely self-centered (totally deserved.) I did not think about whether or not I wanted my friends to call, so in hindsight, I can see what a predicament the situation put them in.

So now I know you are thinking uh oh. What did Randi say to her friend who called her or what if I call a sick friend and say the wrong thing? What if I give them words of support and they want to say something snarky to me?  Or, what if I bawl my eyes out when I hear her voice?

I can only tell you based on my own journey into “Cancerville” what I think might be just the right thing to do. Here is my short list of do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T make remarks about your friend’s lifestyle. Keep your comments such as “How can you not know that by smoking you were putting yourself at risk?” to yourself. People need to come to their own conclusions about themselves.
  • DO Listen. You are there to give your love and support.
  • DON’T ask your friend if you can bring a meal or help somehow.
  • DO say I’m going to take your carpool days. What time do you pick up the kids from school? Or, I am bringing over a meal for Sunday. What time works for you? Whether it’s a carpool, a doctor’s appointment, a meal or an errand, make yourself available, and be specific about what and/or how you will be helping your friend. Just DO it! My dearest friend made a meal chart, sent it out to all my friends via email and had everybody sign up for a meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) during my entire treatment. She really earned her golden angel wings for taking charge!
  • DON’T say, “You are going to be fine!”  That was the one-liner that really irritated me. In fact, any reference to being fine can magnify the situation. Do you know for sure that your friend will be fine?
  • DO say, “I’ll be here to support you during and after your treatment. Enough said.
  • DON’T call your friend and unveil the story of how you heard the cancer news, where you were when you found out, how you were told and how upset you are. Also, please don’t say, “Why didn’t you call me right away?” Please remember, this isn’t about you and your feelings, it is about how much you want to support your friend. All of the other details can come later. As she processes her experience I practically guarantee that she will want to tell you anyway.
  • DO call your friend and offer your support and encouragement. You can open the conversation like this: “Oh Dee! I just heard that you are sick. How are you doing?”  It’s really not so horrible to cry, as long as you don’t make the conversation about you.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I believe people saw me differently. Deep down I knew that I was still me, and I wanted to be treated the same as ALWAYS. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t believe I had a diagnosis of DCIS. Breast Cancer? ME? Being sick is so overwhelming, that to have friends come along and lift you out of many overshadowing thoughts, even for 30 minutes, is TRULY wonderful. It made me feel almost normal. Doesn’t normal feel so good?

As I said, I am not an expert. I know only how I felt during my journey into ”The Pink Bubble.” I think as a whole, the dos and don’ts are great guiding principles to stick to. As a friend, your role is to support, help and send love. That pretty much sums it up.

To learn more about Randi you can peruse her blog or read excepts from her book, Why Buy a Wig…When You Can Buy Diamonds!, when you visit her website.

20 thoughts on “Randi Rentz: What to Say (and What Not to Say) when Your Friend is Diagnosed

  1. I had people get mad at me – really?? for not telling them – I was in a hospital on morphine and went from ER straight to Oncology with stage 4 – I thought I had a kidney infection – and people got mad. still scratching my head over that one.

  2. Thank you, I appreciate your candid answer to a great question. It is something that I have thought about and also wondered if it was rude or nice to contact someone that you don’t talk to on a regular basis just to offer support and wish them well and let them know you are thinking about them. I am sorry that some people upset you by the things they said and I just wanted to tell you that you are an inspiration to all who know you.

  3. My favorite cousin was diagnosed quite a number of years ago. She is always quiet about it to the rest of her family. Yes, it metastasized. From lymph-nodes to her stomach. She just went through surgery. She is home ,now. I respected her wish not to pass the word along to others, b/c she means that much to me. As far as most of them know, she was just, (in the hospital, again for more treatments.) I know very little about recurrences or odds or percentages, but I know how to pray and yeah, selfishly it satisfies my way to cope. I want to do more! I don’t know what to say, let alone where to start. So, I decided to Keep my mouth shut. My mom’s father used to say “The person with the most sense, keep’s his mouth shut.” If that is her wish, I will stand by it. We are always close in spirit. So, I am asking for the answer? Right or Wrong? I don’t even know if I am doing this right. Ora Pro No bus, ” For where your treasure is,there also will your heart be.” Jlands

  4. As a survivor what helped me were cards in the mail with simple messages like, “Praying for you still”, or “You’re in my thoughts”. Those simple words reassured me I was not alone while I was going through the long process of treatments and doctors visits. Cards didn’t require me to do something in return when I felt overwhelmed by it all. But please, don’t say or do nothing. Especially if it’s someone in your close circle or family. Asking how the person is doing, then simply listening or even crying together was tremendously helpful. If they don’t want to talk, simply tell them you love them or you’re there if they need someone to listen. I got very private when I was sick, but I still needed to know people cared…..thanks for this post.

    • And I appreciate your reply, I am here if you ever want to chat to someone that doesn’t know you,also. Sometimes that also takes the pressure off. I listen to your words of advice. Remembered in my prayers, Jimmy L.

      • I’m sorry I never responded to your comment, Jimmy. That was really sweet of you. It’s been 13 years out for me and I’m really doing well. Thank you for your prayers.

  5. Well done. A friend and I often talk about our list of what not to say or the darnest things people do say. How about one of my favorites, “Anyone of us could get hit by a bus any minute.” Yes, but I was not standing in the middle of the road .” It irks me when people say, “Oh, I am dying to get those boots!” or, “…this is killing me.”

  6. One thing that really helped me was that my sister managed the flow of information to all my family members. She sent out update emails to let people know what was happening with my progress. That way I didn’t have to deal with all the pressure of communicating, and yet I wasn’t leaving people in the dark with no information either. A really nice thing that my cousins did was to pool money and they sent me a check to do whatever I wanted with it. I used it to hire someone to walk my dog while I was in treatment, which was a huge help.

    • Oh, I love what your sweet cousins did for you! How thoughtful. I would have enjoyed that, too.

      When I went through it, people weren’t using computers to the extent that they do now. It’s lovely that people can be kept informed so quickly and all at once. You had great family support. So helpful.

      • Thanks Julie, and I equally love what your brother did with leaving those little gifts for you to find when you came home from doctor’s appointments. It’s like a little reward for being a trooper. Like you, I’m many years out now… not 13, but half that. Talk about being private… this is the first time I’ve ever even blogged about it!

  7. Great answer to a very difficult question. I have spent the last year (I was diagnosed a year ago next week) battling the cancer, living through a bilateral mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and earlier this month, reconstruction. It has been a long year, and I know I didn’t do this alone. What helped us the most was gift cards to area restaurants / fast food places. That way we could manage meals based on what I could / could not eat, or if I was even willing to smell food. We didn’t have to coordinate receiving food and our friends really wanted to help. Cards, emails, notes of encouragement were also helpful. Those were things that encouraged me regardless of whether or not I was emotionally available to others. It was also great to have a friend at work (mine and my husband’s) and at church through which to funnel updates.

  8. Something that one of my brothers did that deeply touched me during the first couple of weeks after diagnosis, was to leave small gifts at our front door to discover after a draining time of being with doctors. He drove a long way to leave just tiny little gestures that felt like tremendous support. I don’t even remember what all of them were, but at the time I was afraid of eating any junk food, and one time I came home to fresh, cold fruit salad hanging creatively off the door knob. I laughed and cried simultaneously…..Years later, I got to follow his example when a dear friend was diagnosed. It was as rewarding to pick out little things and tie them to her door as it was to feel how deeply it touched my friend’s heart.

  9. Like Julie, I really appreciated the cards I received. My cousin-in-law sent me a card every week during my many months of treatments, and it was such a boost to know that someone was thinking of me. What I didn’t like was getting a lot of phone calls; I wanted to keep the phone line open in case the doctor’s office was calling with results of this or that test. Also, treatment was draining, to say the least, and the last thing I wanted was someone (other than a doctor) calling while I was napping.
    LotsaHelpingHands.com is a great way for someone to keep everyone informed of your progress and to let them know when you need a ride or meals or whatever; then they can sign up online for whatever they wish to do for you.
    Depending on the outside temperature, I’d be wary of leaving food by the door without making arrangements ahead of time. I did appreciate receiving home-cooked meals, though; fortunately most people contacted my husband to ask when we’d like meals, otherwise we could have had them all come at once.
    Also it was nice when people I knew only in passing came up to me on the street or in a store and mention they’d heard (I didn’t care who knew what I was going through) of my diagnosis and express their care and concern briefly. It was especially uplifting when some of them told me they’d had breast cancer years ago; I hadn’t known and it was encouraging to see how great they were doing years later.

  10. Okay, something Lani said triggered my memory of THE most annoying thing NOT to say… bar none!! (at least in my book). It has always been very important to me not to define myself as a cancer patient and dwell on the past, but rather to keep moving forward. In that spirit, I HATE when people sympathetically put their hand on mine and ask in a lowered tone “How are you doing, really?” or anything along those lines. I had someone say to me the other day “You look good!” in a surprised kind of way… mind you, I’m nearly seven years after diagnosis and treatment. I replied “Why not?” Sympathy might be acceptable during the illness itself, but let survivors bask in their strength and resilience without trying to drag them back into the patient role. I don’t want to go back there!

    • Ooh, that’s a sensitive one for me, too, Sharon. I think this is a common thing that cancer survivors experience and hate. Depending on the timing of when someone does it (even 13 years out), it can spark annoyance, or fear (do they know something I don’t know??), or it can even feel condescending.

      My mom is a cancer survivor of 40 years and I will sometimes gently mention that to people who seem to think cancer is never survived. It usually changes their demeanor quickly. I have tried to learn to show people grace in this regard, but educate them at the same time.

  11. Cards meant so much to me. I have each and every one of them–11 years later. I have never forgotten all the thoughtful things people did without being too helpful. I remember the small things like a co-worker walking with me to my train after work pretending to just be going in that direction when they were worried I might have problems on a day I must not have looked very well. And, a wonderful group of 3 women who stopped by on Saturdays with coffee and bagels just to sit and laugh and talk. I looked forward to those visits all week. They made me feel normal.

    • Such kind sensitivity the way your co-worker looked after you. Love that story….And it’s great when people make you feel normal.

  12. I actually blog also and I’m authoring a thing comparable
    to this article, “Randi Rentz: What to Say (and What Not to Say) when
    Your Friend is Diagnosed LBBC’s Blog”. Do you really care in the event I actuallyincorporate a number of of your suggestions? Thanks for your time -Teri

  13. I rarely create responses, however i did a few searching and wound up here Randi Rentz:
    What to Say (and What Not to Say) when Your Friend is Diagnosed | LBBC’s Blog.
    And I actually do have some questions for you if you usually do not mind.
    Is it just me or does it look like some of these responses appear like they
    are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you
    are writing on additional places, I’d like to keep up with anything new you have to post.
    Would you list of every one of your shared pages
    like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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