Long-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.