With Friends Like These…

photo-5Long-time LBBC blog contributor Randi Rentz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Here she shares her take on well-meaning advice gone wrong from friends and family, even strangers, and the emotional impact it can sometimes cause.

I’m thinking of a man I met (right after my diagnosis in 2008) who had lost his beloved wife to breast cancer about a year earlier and who, upon hearing that I had just been diagnosed, told me all about her long sad struggle.  I sat with him, trapped listening to his story because I felt so bad for him and he needed to talk, but I needed to escape and I didn’t.  Luckily, because I am a world-class denier, he didn’t scare me too much.  As he was recounting his story I was telling myself, “she was not Stage 1, she did not have a nice, early catch.  She was not in my situation.”

I was told by another friend that if I were a vegan I wouldn’t have cancer. I admit I was furious by the unsolicited advice. I went out and bought myself a nice filet after hearing her opinion.

Overall, I was lucky enough to duck the Debbie Downers of the world but knew it was likely that I would be confronted with advice whether I wanted it or not (and whether I think the person dispensing it is full of crap or not).

My friends and loved ones had plenty to say. I found that some of them were incredibly helpful, and others were not, even though they thought they were. It would be great if all of our friendships came with their own kind of Hippocratic Oath:  “First Do No Harm-and Second, Don’t Say Something That Will Freak Her Out.”  Unfortunately, there are well meaning people who think, after watching Oprah, Dr. Oz and The Doctors and reading the right books, that they are qualified to give you advice.  The odds are pretty good that they are not, unless that person has been through it personally or alongside someone else at very close range.

If you are bombarded by friends or colleagues who want to tell you about the women they know who’ve also had breast cancer, here’s a suggestion, one that I wish I’d thought of sooner. Ask them to call their friends to see whether they’d mind talking to you about their experiences.  No one who’s just found out she has breast cancer should be expected to cold-call a stranger to discuss such a personal topic and if your friend really wants to help you she’ll do this. (If not, do you need this gasbag in your life right at this moment? Probably not.)

And for those of you who are friends of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients:  Please, think twice before offering any advice that was not requested.  Your friend/loved one is already deluged with too much information.  Don’t volunteer your opinion, even if it’s based on rock-solid knowledge, unless you are asked, and then, think hard about the effect it will have before answering.

Being a friend or family member of someone diagnosed with breast cancer can be challenging. If your loved one has recently completed treatment, consider attending our upcoming Annual Fall Conference with them and participate in the educational session specifically for caregivers. The session will highlight how to support your loved one emotionally and physically while entering into this next phase of caregiving.  For more information or to register click here.

Randi Rentz, graduated with honors from The Johns Hopkins University with a Masters degree in Special Education. She was an editorial assistant for a publishing company in suburban Washington, DC before becoming a special education teacher in a school district outside Philadelphia, PA. Randi currently is an Asperger’s Support Teacher for grades kindergarten through fifth. Presently, Randi has her own consulting company for children on the Autistic Spectrum where you can see her work at   www.helpforaspergers.com. She is a proud member, supporter, and blogger for many breast cancer organizations and never leaves the house without diamonds. Visit Randi at her web site at www.randirentz.com. Be sure to check out the teaser for her upcoming book “Why Buy a Wig…When You Can Buy Diamonds!”

13 thoughts on “With Friends Like These…

  1. This is my pet peeve! I have a friend who insists on saying to me this day, 6 years later, that she doesn’t understand why I had that treatment course as her mother had a different course of treatment, 15 years prior, at a different medical facility…. Every cancer is different.

  2. And thanks, AmyJo. Like a walk down memory lane, Randi. I, too, cannot fathom why people feel it is OK to intrude or judge in that way.

    Healthy, mostly organic for years, didn’t own a microwave until I was 34, nursed my child for two years, and never missed a mammogram since age 40 and was diagnosed with Stage 3 HER+ IDC at 52. I will never know what caused my BC, I only know I am fortunate to live in a time where the surgery for my bilateral mastectomy didn’t impact my life in a way that I could never again reach my kitchen cabinet or hold a cup of coffee, like so many of our sisters even ten years ago.

    New Age beliefs are as dangerous as they are helpful; twisted interpretation unwittingly blames the victim; can one really believe it is only our thoughts that will create cancer or cure us?

    The Giuliana Rancic effect has made BC look easy. What are we complaining about? Someone told me, “Breast cancer is nothing. Most women survive that now.” That only sets the stage for an abundance of misconception about diagnosis, populations affected (including men and pre-vivors), treatment, and side effects. The red carpet is not ready for me; it is two years later and I still have extensive balance and coordination issues that compromise my safety and job performance. Working while undergoing chemo treatments or radiation was impossible. And of course I don’t have one personal assistant; who doubts GR has many?

    All the publicity GR received has been detrimental to the understanding of the walk many of us have made. Worse than a back seat driver is all the expert opinion from those who have not experienced our situation and believe all it takes is a race for the cure and still want us to be red carpet ready.

  3. So very, very true! Thank you for posting this. When I was diagnosed my partner of 14 years (a physician!!) told me it was MY fault because I was overweight. My tumor was triple negative NOT fueled by the hormones that can make us heavier like estrogen. Well…long, painful story but he saw me through surgery, chemo and radiation and then left me to marry a woman who is 20 yrs younger than he and I !!

  4. Dear Abracadeborah and Holly: Abracadeborah – LoL – posts like that take me so long to recover from (“thank goodness I was only stage 1!”) After I was diagnosed at age 39 (as stage 3) I finally bought myself a microwave oven! Definately like a walk down memory lane. I still have focus issues at work 7 years after chemo. And Holly, goes to show you that not all physicians are nice, and not all husbands so compassionate!

  5. A high school classmate told my then 31-year-old daughter that if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, she wouldn’t have been diagnosed with breast cancer. We are Jewish. It’s a good thing I wasn’t standing there when he said it.

  6. Thanks for this post. I have recently found out that a friend of mine has breast cancer. I will be sure to think before I speak as I only want to be supportive. Ha, Can’t believe someone said if you were vegan you would be fine.

  7. All I can say is that we need to support each other….this journey is not easy or short. I was diagnosed age 32 and after radiation and chemo and 5 years later, thought I would be ok. Then about 25 years later, breast cancer again. Had radiation and went on Arimadex for 5 years. Had genetic testing done and showed I had 87% chance of getting it again. Had my ovaries removed and they found a mass in my abdomen and in my chest. I have gotten Falsodex shots monthly for 15 months and the mass in my chest continues to grow. Probably need a biopsy of the mass in my chest. That will be difficult because I have severe scoliosis, restrictive lung disease and am on 5 liters of oxygen around the clock.
    Sorry to go on about my whole story…..I look forward to learning from all of you.

  8. My favorite, from a friend whose sister battles “chronic cancer,” to me before surgery: “Be sure they get it all. I don’t think they got all of my sister’s.” And how exactly am I, anaesthetized, supposed to “be sure” of that??

  9. Randi–wow, my thoughts exactly! When I was diagnosed sept 2013–I immediately sensed that I needed to guard myself against negativity and while people have good intentions—I knew that I needed to find my own way. You can’t possibly understand all the different circumstances involved with breast cancer. We are all different–each requiring different course of treatment. It’s confusing, frustrating, and over-whelming. Best advice that I would give someone is to go your own way – don’t let others (trying to be helpful) give you their opinions or experience. We don’t need to give breast cancer any more negative energy!

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