According to breast cancer support groups and patients themselves, these 10 questions are best avoided. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here’s how to avoid putting your foot in your mouth—and for cancer patients, how respond to inappropriate questions. From The 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer: The Script You Need to Take Control of Your Health, by Dede Bonner, Ph.D.
1. Did I tell you about my aunt Sally who got breast cancer last year and who dropped dead less than two months later?
One of the most universally despised and most common Worst Questions involves telling a long shaggy-dog story about someone else’s cancer, especially one with a tragic ending. Aunt Sally has nothing to do with anything except maybe it’s the only way the listener can relate to breast cancer at all.
But in essence, an Aunt Sally story allows the listener to hijack your right to talk about your personal experience and feelings. So just when the listener is trying to show empathy, instead she pulls the rug out from under you and steals the show with her Aunt Sally tale. Let Aunt Sally rest in peace.
Veronica, age forty-nine, from Shipman Hill, Vermont, recalls, “I’d find myself cringing, waiting for the same two phrases every time: ‘I know exactly how you feel’ and ‘This is what happened to me.’ I couldn’t get them to listen to me.”
2. What did you do to cause your cancer?
One of the most common misconceptions in our hyper health-conscious society is that somehow people cause or are responsible for their own cancers. This is simply not true. No one knows with 100-percent certainty what causes most kinds of cancer, including breast cancer. This Worst Question indicates a blame the victim mindset. Don’t fall for it. It’s not your fault.
3. How long did they give you to live?
This innocent question reflects the asker’s ignorance of breast cancer statistics and the myth that all cancer diagnoses are automatic death sentences. Sometimes people just don’t know what else to ask except to ask “time” questions — how long, how short, how often, etc.
4. Can you still wear a bra?
Oh, please! Is this a nosy and insensitive question or what? You have the Question Doctor’s permission to come up with an equally inappropriate response.
5. What are you so worked up about?
This question usually comes from the same creep who tells you that he had a hernia operation last year and he’s just fine, thanks. This awful question lacks any shred of sympathy, empathy, or understanding about what’s involved with the complexities and hardships of breast cancer treatment.
It’s the opposite of Worst Question 3. Instead of assuming a worst-case scenario, now the asker has unconsciously assumed a best-case scenario. The asker has also discredited your need to share the information or feelings that you might have been on the verge of talking about.
6. Should you be eating that?
Coming from the right person and with the right tone of voice, this is an OK question. It shows concern for your health. But if your overbearing mother asks you this question over and over again, you might be tempted to go into orbit, just to keep from strangling her. Or if Marathon Mary at work is commenting on the food on your cafeteria tray as you walk by her, you’re probably silently hating yourself for telling her about your breast cancer while also hating Mary because she claims she’s never eaten a potato chip in her life.
Want an answer to “Should you be eating that?” Try “Probably not without a glass of wine to go with it.” So there!
7. How does your husband/partner feel about this? Is he still romantic with you?
Again, coming from the right person, this can be a kind and caring question. The asker’s motivation behind this question may be purely good-hearted and an invitation to talk. But if asked in a prying, inquisitive manner or by someone you aren’t close to, this can also be an out-of-bounds question. The asker most likely really wants to know what’s going on in your bedroom.
Some people may be extra curious after you’ve had breast reconstruction surgery. Their unspoken question is likely to now be some version of, “How does your husband feel about the real one and the fake one?” If you aren’t sure about the asker’s “real question,” turn it around and ask the other person if he or she would ask you that question if you had a different kind of cancer, like lung or stomach. Their response will probably reveal a lot about their real motivations.
8. How much did your breast weigh?
No kidding. Two breast cancer survivors who live hundreds of miles apart claim to have been asked this slightly sick and twisted question after their mastectomies.
9. Is that a wig? Can I see your bald head?
Maybe you’re cool with this question and can whip off your wig as you look the other person straight in the eye and ask back, “Want to borrow my hair?” If not, any version of “no” also works here.
10. Weren’t you thinking about getting a boob job anyway?
The asker has erroneously equated your breast reconstruction surgery with a “boob job,” a breast implant surgery for cosmetic reasons. The reasons behind these two surgeries are as different as night and day. Another variation of this Worst Question is asking you about your “tummy tuck” after a flap reconstruction surgery, implying you only wanted a free tummy tuck. Come on! There are lots of easier ways to get gorgeous.
More on Cancer Care and Recovery
—How Breast Cancer Affects Your Marriage
—Hope and Cancer: How Far We’ve Come
—Read the Introduction to 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer
<—a href=”http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Dede-Bonner/48285472/books”>More books by Dede Bonner