Being diagnosed with breast cancer, as I was a month ago, is hard enough... then you start telling your friends. While some of them seem to know the utterly perfect things to say, others put both feet right in it, time after time.
I’m not holding any grudges: some of the most inappropriate text messages I’ve received have given me laugh-out-loud moments, even on my darkest days.
But my experience of cancer so far has taught me there are definitely some things you really don’t want to hear.
Here are my top 10 (and, yes, I really have heard all of them).
WHAT NOT TO SAY
1. ‘I’m petrified I’m going to lose you’
When you’re told you have cancer, the massive fear in your mind is that your life is going to be cut short. Not this week or even next month, but maybe in a year or a few years’ time.
But it’s rarely what the doctors will be telling you: they have an arsenal of treatments, and they’ve seen thousands of cancer patients recover, get cured, and live on for many decades.
The very last thing you want is a friend who starts raising the terrifying spectre of your impending demise. And also: this response is all about you, not about me. Not good.
2. I’ll put you on the prayer list at church
This was my mom, bless her. The only trouble is, most people I’ve known who’ve been on that prayer list are no longer with us. Okay, so most of them were over 80. But why take the chance?
3. Thinking of you as I head off to the airport on holiday
That was a text I got from a friend. Now call me selfish, but right now I don’t want to hear about all the wonderful things going on in my friends’ lives. And holidays are a particularly sore point: I should be away on a short break right now, and haven’t been able to go, and I’m also almost certainly going to miss a family holiday, because I’ll be having chemotherapy.
So: play down the lovely times you’re having, folks, just for a few days until I’ve got my head around having my life put through the mincer.
4. I know lots about breast cancer because my sister had it. She didn’t make it, unfortunately
Two people have told me this; both of them were well-meaning, and I was genuinely sorry to hear about their relatives. But again, just for now, maybe it’s a good idea to keep your tragic stories to yourself.
5. I keep thinking about how lucky I am to be healthy myself
Well, I’m thrilled for you. The truth is that many of my friends must have thought, in the light of my news, about how fortunate they are not to be facing life-changing surgery and chemotherapy; I’m sure I’ve done something similar myself in the past. But it’s not something you say out loud – and definitely not to the friend with cancer.
I don’t mind being a living reminder of everyone else’s good fortune – but, please, don’t share that thought with me.
6. You’ve been really, really unlucky
It was a doctor who told me that. He might have been right – I first went to see a GP in September, when my breast just felt “different” somehow. I was assured everything was fine until last month, I noticed a slight puckering, and the tumour was identified.
The fact is, no one wants to think they’re unlucky. I’m a glass-half-full person, and I want others around me to back up that instinct. I’d rather my doctor told me about how lucky I am that breast cancer now has such good survival rates, or that with my (hopefully still early stage) tumour, my chances of coming through this and living a normal life for many years are high.
7. What’s the prognosis?
This is something you should never, ever ask a cancer patient. Right now, I don’t even know what my prognosis is – that will come much further down the line after surgery and more tests and a lot more treatment. But, honestly, it’s a question it’s never going to be politic to ask.
The kind thing to do is assume everyone with cancer has a good prognosis because however bad it is, they’ll have at least a grain of hope somewhere... and that’s what they’ll be clinging on to.
8. How are you feeling?
People say that in a concerned kind of tone, in the sort of voice they’d use for someone who’s ill. But the truth is that, right now, I’m completely fine. In fact, I feel better than fine: I feel healthier than I have for years. It’s more than a decade since I took a painkiller or had a cold. I’ve always been fit and healthy, and I still am.
According to my consultant, I might have had this tumour in my breast for five years – and I have certainly not been ill for five years.
So the thing about early stage cancer is you’re usually fine, and it’s irksome to be asked all the time whether you’re feeling unwell.
The reality is that what’s been diagnosed in me is something that, if left, could affect my life some years down the line.
To stay healthy, I’m unfortunately going to have to suffer some pain and ill health in the next few weeks and months – a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy – but that’s the price you have to pay if you want to go on living for as long as possible.
9. I’ll come to see you in hospital
It’s a kind thought, but I’m not sure I’ll want anyone to see me in hospital. I’ll be going in at 6am one morning fit and healthy, and by that night I’ll be lying in a high-dependency bed after a six-hour operation. I’ll be in hospital for at least four days, maybe longer, and the plastic surgeon has assured me that, although he has every confidence I’ll be fine, absolutely everyone has some kind of setback afterwards.
So I’ll look awful, I’ll be in pain, I’ll be struggling to get my head and body around looking and feeling different, and I’ll almost certainly have to deal with unforeseen problems. Visitors, barring my husband, probably aren’t going to be top of my wish list.
This is absolutely the worst possible response. If you hear your friend has cancer, text them, e-mail them, leave a message on their answer phone, put a note through their door, call them up or just knock on their door. But don’t just ignore the news.
I’m not saying I’ve been horribly hurt by people who haven’t bothered to contact me, but one or two haven’t, and I’ve noticed. It’s definitely possible to say the wrong thing – see above – but it’s far, far worse not to even respond to what’s probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to the person you love, or who thought you loved them.
As I say, even the worst blunders have given me a really good laugh. The people who haven’t got in touch just make me a bit sad.
So what should you say? Here are the things people have said that are absolutely spot-on:
WHAT TO SAY
1. ‘My friend Jane had breast cancer 20 years ago. She now lives in New York/Rome/Sydney and runs the UN/Barclays Bank/her own incredibly successful multinational corporation’.
Stories of people who’ve been through this, come out the other side AND managed to have a life beyond cancer are what keep me going right now.
2. ‘I had cancer. It’s a rough ride, but you’ll survive it – and probably more easily than you’re imagining right now’
The worst things in life are the unknowns, and cancer is a massive unknown: so what helps hugely is someone who’s been down this path ahead of me, and who can tell me from experience that not only will I make it (just as she did) but also that the treatment won’t be as bad as I’m fearing.
3. ‘Breast cancer isn’t usually something that kills women these days. It’s a condition that has to be managed, and doctors are good at doing that – and they’re getting even better, all the time’
No one should underestimate breast cancer: it’s a terrible disease, and it kills (more than 3 000 women a year in South Africa). But at the same time it’s a condition many people, even those whose immediate diagnosis isn’t what you’d term “good”, live with for a long time.
4. ‘Keep your life on a normal track until you’re forced to change it’
That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given recently, and it’s why I’m writing this article! I have no intention of letting cancer change my life, so I’m still doing all the things I usually do, for as long as I possibly can (and when I’m through the other end of surgery, I’ll be straight back to it).
5. ‘Just concentrate on today’
Cancer is extraordinarily daunting: in an instant, the ground melts from under your feet, and you realise that, even if it firms up again in time, it’s never going to be as solid as it once was. And what’s especially scary is looking too far ahead: if I start thinking about how I’ll feel after my big operation, or how I’ll cope with chemotherapy, I get really scared. But if I concentrate just on today, that’s not too intimidating.
Today is manageable, and being reminded of that has been invaluable. - Daily Mail