A wife and Mum diagnosed with breast cancer who had heard it all, offers firsthand advice.

Talking with a loved one who’s dealing with a serious illness is never easy. You may struggle to come up with something — anything — to say to let the person know that you’re there for them, and that you’re sorry this is happening.

You want to make them feel better, you want to give them the world. But instead, many people often end up, unwittingly, saying something hurtful.

I can say this with some authority because in 2020, when I was 37, my cancer diagnosis was upgraded to stage 4 metastatic breast cancer (MBC). That means that the cancer is advanced and has spread to other organs.

I have been the recipient of some of the worst — and best — comments and advice.

So, as a member of a club nobody wants to join, I’m here to share a few things to never, ever say to someone with MBC, as well as some basic phrases that can mean the absolute world to someone like me.

Be sure to show up throughout the good and bad times. No matter how hard it may be for you to face, it is always more difficult for [people with MBC], and we need you.

What You Should Never Say to Someone With MBC

1. “When Will Your Treatment End?” 

Unfortunately, never. When someone is diagnosed with MBC, they will live only as long as there are treatments available to stabilise their specific subtype of cancer. Are there instances where people with MBC won’t be receiving treatment? Yes, but those are very specific situations, and treatment will usually resume at a later date, if there are any left that they haven’t yet tried.

2. “You Don’t Look Sick” 

I know, when you think of someone with cancer, you probably think of bald heads and frail bodies. So someone with stage 4 cancer would probably look like the sickest person you’ve ever met, right?

Not necessarily.

Treatment for MBC is very different from treatment for early-stage cancer. The goal of treatment for someone with early-stage cancer is to be cured. But with MBC, there is no cure, so the goal is to keep the person alive for as long as possible, and with the best quality of life.

It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, so the treatments are often less toxic, and patients may look incredibly healthy (and even have a lovely head of hair, too).

3. ‘Have You Tried … ?’ 

It is so incredibly kind of you to share information that you learned with those of us with MBC. We know that thinking about us dying from this disease scares you so much that you just want to tell us everything and anything you may have read about. But trust me, if there is something out there that could cure us, we would know about it. And if we didn’t, our very knowledgeable cancer care team would.

4. ‘You Shouldn’t Do That, It Isn’t Good for You!’ 

Whether you think that sugar feeds cancer (it doesn’t), or that we’re not strong enough to play sports with our children, or anything else you may see someone with MBC doing, please know that we have had extensive conversations with our cancer care team about what our limitations are, and we know what’s best for us. Do we sometimes do things that aren’t great for us, like the time I ate an entire tub of ice cream in one night? Yes, that’s what makes us human! Plus, when you know that your life may be significantly shortened, sometimes you just have to go for it, even if you may pay for it tomorrow. Life is for living, so join us or go away.

5. ‘You Just Have to Think Positive!’ 

Yes, it is scientifically proven that positivity does have an impact on how someone manages an illness. I happen to be a very positive person, and can attest that the days when I feel like I will live long enough to meet my grandchildren feel so much better than the days when I am planning my own funeral.

But it is also scientifically proven that positivity does not increase overall survival for those with an incurable illness. Positivity will keep us happier while we are alive but will not cure what we are dealing with.

It is also so hard to keep positive all the time when faced with a terminal illness.

Plus, life is hard even when you aren’t managing cancer, medicinal side effects, and “scanxiety.” We think about our pending doom at all times, and although we try to be positive, sometimes it’s impossible, and telling me to do so really doesn’t help.

6. ‘You’re Going to Beat This!’ 

Yes, we are strong – we have to be to walk this path each and every day. But, no, we are not going to beat this. Unless something else takes our lives first, or the miracle of a cure surfaces, this disease will be our ultimate demise. It sucks, but it’s the truth. Please don’t make us have to explain this fact to you. It just reminds us that we will not beat this – and that really, really hurts.

7. ‘My [Insert Family Member, Friend, Coworker Here] Died of Cancer’

No. Just. No.

8. ‘What Did (or Didn’t) You Do to Make It Come Back?’

Trust me, if there was anything we could do to avoid the cancer returning, we would have done it. Cancer metastasises when even one single, solitary, microscopic cancer cell has travelled from the original cancer site to another place in the body. I had the most aggressive treatment for my early-stage cancer, because I was willing to go through hell and back to be able to live the rest of my life cancer-free, and even that could not prevent the cancer coming back in my liver 18 months later.

A cancer recurrence is not our fault, and we should never be made to feel like it is.

9. ‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Get Back to Your Old Self Again Soon!’

Nope, we won’t. But you know what? That’s okay. Because this new version of us – this raw, scarred, not-afraid-to-tell-you-how-it-is, living life in the moment because we know it’s all we’re promised, literally not caring at all about the small stuff, person we have become – is so much better than who we were before.

You may not be used to us, we may not be as fun or agreeable as we were previously, but that is because we are no longer taking one single second for granted. And we are proud of this new person we have become, even though we are just getting to know ourselves, too.



What You Should Say to Someone With MBC Instead

1. ‘I Don’t Know What to Say to Make You Feel Better, but I Am Here, and Always Will Be’ 

If you’re going to say this, please make sure that you make good on this statement. Be sure to show up throughout the good and bad times. No matter how hard it may be for you to face, it is always more difficult for us, and we need you.

2. ‘This Sucks! I Hate This for You!’ 

We hate it too, and it feels so good to know you feel the same way. We don’t know what to say or do either sometimes, but just knowing you’re as pissed off as we are is somehow comforting.

3. ‘I’m Sending You Dinner on Tuesday. What Time Can I Have It Delivered?’

Saying, “How can I help?” puts the burden back on us to find ways that you can support us, when it already feels incredibly sad that we need that support in the first place.

If you think sending us dinner would help (and trust me, it does), just do it.

If you don’t know what our family eats, gift cards for local restaurants are amazing!

It doesn’t always have to be about food. If there are other tangible ways you can think of to help us – such as offering cleaning services, taking our children to extracurricular activities, grocery shopping, or walking our dogs – please be specific with your offer, and thank you.

SOURCE: Everyday Health