Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Don't tell a breast cancer patient they are lucky

So far in the course of my cancer treatment, I haven't been the recipient of any ignorant remarks.

I hear this is rare.

When it came to my physical appearance, strangers either didn't notice my lack of hair, pretended not to notice, or complimented me on my scarves. Nary a rude word.

This is more amazing when you note that I work in a middle school and worked during chemo. Not one kid said a word to me. You might think that's because I'm an authority figure at the school, and so I laugh at your ignorance; you clearly haven't been on a school campus lately if you think that would stop a kid from making a rude comment. In fact, I had one boy actually make fun of my wide-legged pants, asking me if I thought I was still in the 70s. (They are, by the way, very fashionable - check InStyle this month if you don't think so.)

I was actually delighted that this boy showed an interest in fashion, and told him so.

The fact that I heard no rude comments tells me that most kids and adults are very compassionate.

I heard from one acquaintance though, a very pretty, feminine woman who formerly had long blonde hair, that during her process of regrowth somebody called her a "dyke." I cannot imagine the thought process of anyone who could say such a thing. (Cancer or no). I imagine it's quite simple - they don't think at all.

It's a good thing I had not experienced a comment like that, because as those who know me will attest, I am not the kind to suffer in silence.

In fact, I suffer quite loudly. Somebody would have been embarrassed, but it would not have been me.

Now, people have said things that made me a bit uncomfortable. I have been told how courageous I am, for example. I don't understand a comment like that - I was drafted into this pink war, I didn't volunteer. There is a huge difference between being courageous and having no choice but to put one foot in front of the other. But it wasn't a rude comment, it was complimentary, and so you just say thank you.

The closest anybody got to being rude was dissing my insurance choice, when by then, I couldn't do anything about, had I even wanted to. But, that comment came from worry that things weren't happening fast enough so even then, there was kindness behind the remark.

I generally cut people slack in this arena. Most people don't know what to say when they discover you have a scary disease like cancer. So, had somebody said something unintentionally rude, I would pay more attention to the meaning behind the words than the actual words.

Before I had cancer, I wouldn't have known the perfect thing to say either.

I just got a text from a friend, who also has breast cancer and who had a bilateral mastectomy. She is also in the process of reconstruction, and has tissue expanders in place. She has to have them for a year, due to her need for radiation.

Before I go on, let me tell you that TE's are no picnic. They don't feel like breasts; they are hard as a rock. If you hug me, you will feel like you are hugging somebody who smuggled a boulder in her bra. Your skin is stretched over them and often bruised, and because you have no breast tissue left they can rub on ribs and against the inside of your skin. They have valves that can poke into thin skin and cause pain. Sleeping is difficult because they are so hard, getting dressed is difficult because they aren't in the right places. They are generally an uncomfortable pain in the chest.

So, on this hot day, my friend texted me said that somebody had plaintively said she was, "so lucky she didn't have to wear a bra."

Wow, that is lucky! Maybe she should run out and play the lottery!

As much slack as I cut people, I can't see this comment as anything but insensitive. I'm sure my friend would rather wear a bra every day and night for the rest of her life rather than have had Stage III breast cancer, had her breasts amputated, and have expanders inside her for a year.

I am looking for the kindness behind that remark, and am not finding much there.

I'm all about looking for the positives in any situation you can. But, not having to wear a bra because you had cancer and now have tissue expanders isn't lucky.

Even if it is hot outside.



  1. Good point Ann.....unlike you and your friend I choose not to have reconstruction and have not regretted it.
    I like how speak out and up for the feelings and sensitivities of Breast Cancer patients. Most are unable to use their voice......:-) Hugs

  2. I have been following your blog for a while now, but have been lurking in the shadows. Just wanted to let you know I enjoy your blog. From reading your posts, I know you are a fan of the Old Spice Man. I found this link for the Old Spice Voicemail Generator and thought you would like it: http://www.oldspicevoicemail.com/

    Enjoy :)


  3. Bernie, thanks.

    Jeannie, OMG! I totally love that and now it's my voice mail message on my iPhone. LOL. :) Thank you for sharing. I'm on a horse.

  4. Most people don't know what to say when faced with cancer... I had to explain to my sister and a good friend that positive lymph nodes were bad... They both congratulated me on having positive nodes. Now I'm going to play with the old spice thing...

  5. I'm sure the person felt like an absolute jerk after they thought a bit about what they said. Like Caroline says above, people just don't know what to say.

    The old spice thing rocks!

  6. I am not a particularly charitable person, but I found my inner Mother Theresa during my cancer treatment. People just don't know. They want to say something nice, but most of them are clueless. I got to a point where if someone simply said hello, maybe even with a growl, I considered it goodwill. My opinion is to assume they meant well, and feast on the positive vibes.

  7. I'm also a nut for spelling. I see now it's Mother Teresa without an h.

  8. I'm with you all, people don't know what to say. I wouldn't have known what to say either. And, I'm very open about it all so it's hard to offend me anyway. It's not a big dark secret and I'll make uniboob jokes all day long. Most people are a bit more sensitive though. My friend says this person has told her twice how lucky she is that she doesn't have breasts. Nothing wrong with saying, "I'm sorry, how can I help?" and then taking your lead from the other person. If the cancer friend start making fake boob jokes, then you can tell them at least they don't have to wear a bra. :) If they don't want to talk about it, then it's probably not appropriate.

    Donna, I hope you aren't a stickler for punctuation, or this blog is not for you. Really, I need to take a remedial class or something.

  9. I got that exact comment numerous times (I had TEs from June through January b/c I had them through chemo and then had them swapped out before radiation actually) and honestly that was one of the comments that did NOT bother me quite as much as when I would hear other women with BC Dx at stages 0-2 say in my presence "I know how lucky I am compared to you" (b/c I was Dx'd at stage 3c with 13 positive nodes) - THAT really pissed me off. I would stand there amazed and contemplate whether I should ask them if they thought I should be planning my funeral or something. It was such a shock to be insulted (albeit unintentionally) by other breast cancer survivors. Instead, I always would say "We are ALL lucky that we're alive today." or something like that. UGH

  10. I got sick of the people who told me about the neighbor's friend's mother who felt "free-er" without breasts. Ugh! Never anyone they knew personally or at least closely. I, also, would hear breast cancer was "a good cancer to get as they can do so much." One lady assured me I wouldn't lose my breast because she had had a lumpectomy.
    My favorite was second-hand. It seems someone said to our church secretary (who apparently googles all the diseases she adds to the prayer list), "I don't see why everyone is making a big deal about Elizabeth. After all, it is just breast cancer." I understand the education she gave them about Inflammatory Breast Cancer stage III was "interesting" to say the least.


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