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How Do You Speak With Someone About Breast Cancer

By Laura Carfang

How do you speak with someone about breast cancer who hasn't gone through it? Scrolling through my own social media feed, I am surrounded by "my tribe who gets it". These people have quickly become some of my closest friends!

How do you educate someone about breast cancer who doesn't have it? Having been diagnosed with breast cancer, we quickly develop proficiency in our new language. We become connoisseurs of our chemo cocktails and spokespersons for our own advocacy.

On one Zoom call with a breast cancer friend, I remember within the first 5 minutes of the conversation I knew some of her most intimate fears, sexual concerns, and funeral plans. We started to laugh as she mentioned that "we go deep fast" because we can. And frankly, with a terminal illness, there isn't always the luxury of time.

I am transported back to the novice stage of not knowing anything about cancer prior to my own diagnosis. The "carefree" world back then when my biggest stressor was a job, a colleague I didn't get along with when my 20 something self thought I knew-it-all, or the fact that by boyfriend accidently washed my favorite white tee with his red shorts.

Recently, I've held conversations with women who were either not diagnosed but felt something, or, were newly diagnosed and wished to chat. In both situations I noticed myself spewing out way too much information in my new fluent breast cancer language and desire to help. I wanted to share the the numerous resources I have in my toolbox, i.e., the reason why breast density matters when they probably didn't even know the term, and wanting to introduce them to the women in our network who were in similar situations... but then.... stop. Take a breath. This may not actually be helping, I thought! That's when I realized that I needed to change how I spoke with someone who doesn't have cancer (or newly diagnosed) about breast cancer.

My lesson learned goes something like this:

  • Listen first

  • Answer their questions, not the questions you want to answer

  • Provide bite-size informational nuggets

  • Remember the person is probably scared, don't add to the fear

  • Offer actionable and helpful tips

  • Remind the person that you are there for them if they want to talk more or learn more

I am still learning and I would love your advice! Have you been in a situation like this when you want to over share everything, (and I mean everything) that you know about breast cancer? What did you end up doing? How did you handle the conversation? Let me know and we can come up with some tips and resource guides for our community!

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