what NOT to say to a cancer survivor


i was at standing at an open house when a woman walked in – i had sold her an apartment in the same building.  she looked fabulous and i said so…her once grey hair was now a glossy brown and it took at least 15 years off of her appearance.  so just imagine my surprise to hear:

“did you have another bout of breast cancer since I saw you?”


“oh, I was wondering because your hair is so short now.”

i’ve replayed the scene over and over in my mind since sunday.  i know that my professional smile was frozen on my face – i knew that if i even expressed one iota of ‘other’ emotion i might throw up all over her shoes.  i think i just kept smiling and said something about ‘i just couldn’t keep trying to do the long hair thing anymore’ and then ‘you should help yourself to one of those chocolates on the table.’  but really, it threw me for quite a loop. 

over the past year especially, i’ve sort of come out of the closet about having had breast cancer.  i’ve never been secretive and i don’t just bring it up, but i find that i don’t hide it from others if it happens to be part of the conversation.  and the talking about it – acknowledging it and thinking publicly about it as something now in the past has helped me exorcise some of the emotional demons that plague me and taunt me whispering foreboding messages in my ear.  like so many survivors of illnesses, i take extra care now with my hair and my clothing and my manner in the world.  and i have to tell you i thought i was doing pretty good:  35 pounds lost; i liberated my tepid limp locks into a very short and sassy do; i exercise more; and i definitely smile more.  and so i found myself announcing loudly to a bunch of friends and colleagues at the office exactly what she said to me.  (not revealing who she was.)  more than a few gasps later (including one from someone who, newer to our office, didn’t realize i was a breast cancer survivor) i felt that i had, in fact, partially-exorcised her emotional one-two punch from the secret sad part of my psyche.  i can’t erase it.  but i surely can dismiss it.   and it turns out, i have one helluva professional smile!



7 Responses to what NOT to say to a cancer survivor

  1. Oh I hear you. My what-not-to-say story – about 3 months after finishing my cancer treatment I got a voice mail at home from my doctor’s office – ‘please call immediately – it’s an emergency’. The problem was, they had left the vm on a Friday – and were closed by the time I got home. I spent the weekend completely freaked out.

    I called on Monday – turned out it was someone in their billing department – a problem with my name because I’d gotten married during treatment and she was confused about something in my file. WTF??? ‘Emergency’? I’m still pissed off.

  2. MsAim says:

    I had breast cancer two years ago – double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. At the time, I was very private about my circumstances. I told everything to only a few close friends and family members. Most people didn’t know the extent of my surgery, and I chose not to tell younger nieces and nephews, especially because most of them live cross country. During that first year, I was “outed” to those nieces, cousins I hadn’t seen in years, and even TOTAL strangers (“so which one of you had the double mastectomy?”) Yes, really. Throughout, I heard from those who betrayed my confidence: “I would wear it like a badge of honor!” “I thought they deserved to know.” “I thought they would have been hurt to find out later.” People need to understand that cancer and its associated treatments are the most personal experiences anyone will ever go through. The only “I” in ANY related conversations must only refer to the patient/survivor. How any one else feels about what/when/how the “news” is delivered is completely irrelevant. So much is taken from cancer patients: peace of mind, dignity, modesty, and often sense of self and sexualtiy. It takes time and work and lots of compassion to regain all of what was lost. How dare people take away the ONLY thing a cancer patient still has control of – the right to privacy. It was and always will be MY story to tell – when I want, how I want, to whom I want and IF I want. And just so no one accuses me of selfishness in this, my doctors and everyone in their offices know to give my number to anyone who’s about to embark on this frightening journey. I’m always anxious to help alleviate some of their fears, give tips on how to make it easier, to provide a shoulder to cry on, and to make them laugh – as hard and as frequently as possible. Pretty much everyone in my life knows about my experience now, but they found out when I was ready. Thank you for this blog post today, I’ve reposted on FB and hope people will learn this important lesson. Be well ❤

  3. Laurie says:

    I think you handled it well. How uncouth that woman was! Surely you are not the only person who realized that a short and sassy do “works” for you when you were forced to have one!

    Think of all you have learned. You have wisdom, hard-earned, that some people will never, ever have.

  4. rebeany says:

    ms.aim. welcome and thank you for such a touching comment. it’s so infuriating to feel that someone has taken your privacy away from you. i hope you come back here often… be well!

  5. Becky Walker says:

    I was happy to have found your blog site! What a generous way to reach out to those diagnosed with cancer and provide inspiration by sharing your own story. The topic of what not to say to a cancer survivor is a good one, and I appreciated reading your story. The weight loss and your sassy hairdo are great, but the fact that you smile more is awesome! Cheers to you!

    I want you to know that we included your blog in our Inspirational Blog Directory on Navigating Cancer. Here’s the link for you to take a look –

    Please feel free to look at the other features on the site, such as the resource library and the experiences and discussions posted by our members. We would welcome your participation on any level. If you have any questions I would be happy to address them.

    Thanks again for sharing your story!

    Becky Walker
    Navigating Cancer

    • rebeany says:

      Becky: I’m touched and honored to be in such company. You have quite a list of blogs there. I thought: wow..that’s a lot of breast cancer. and then I thought: wow…those are a lot of survivors talking about their experiences. i’ll focus on the latter!
      It’s a great resource, your site, and I will add a link on my blog so that people know how to find you. Thanks for visiting.


  6. Deborah says:

    Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future.
    A lot of people will be benefited from your writing.


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