Breast cancer: Etiquette
October 15th, 2010
08:48 AM ET

Breast cancer: Etiquette

This week Amanda Enayati will share the milestones of a life-altering journey that began the day she learned she had late-stage breast cancer more than three years ago.

Today let’s discuss cancer etiquette. I would call it serious illness etiquette but I thought I would specialize since cancer is what I know and, who knows, maybe the rules are different from disease to disease. (And yes, every one of the following has happened to me at some point.)

Finding out someone has cancer is awful. It is a cruel disease, which will strike one out of every two Americans. Hearing the bad news is shocking and devastating but it’s probably more shocking and devastating for the cancer victim than it is for you.

So pull yourself together.

You can be authentic, show a little emotion, maybe even shed a tear but for the love of God don’t make it about you and certainly don’t put the cancer patient in the position of having to console you as you sob, beat your chest and yell “Why? Why, God?’ up at the heavens.

Rein yourself in for a minute or two, and let the sick person set the tone. Maybe she wants you to hold her hand and cry with her. Maybe she just wants you to sit and listen. Or maybe she wants you to list the 101 reasons she will survive. Her call. Not yours.

If you don’t know what to say, don’t worry. Any variation of “I’m really sorry,” “I love you,” “My prayers/thoughts are with you” is perfectly okay.

If you find out someone has cancer from someone else, do not call her, burst into tears and sob: “Why do all the good ones have to die?” Yes, it’s true that all the good ones have to die. But all the bad ones have to die too. We all die sometime. Besides, it’s probably not okay to pronounce a living person, who is sitting there on the other end of the phone line, dead from something that they are more than likely hoping to beat (even if they don’t admit it).

Which leads me to my next point, and that is that the cancer patient may or may not die from that particular cancer. There are lots of folks who survive cancer—both early and late-stage—and never have a recurrence, even when the doctors anticipated a high probability that they would. I have read accounts of people who were given weeks and days to live—people who are still living decades later. Recovery is a function of many things and one of them is grace, something that none of us can ever begin to predict or quantify.

Next rule: Don’t look up the odds. Don’t point out the odds. Don’t confirm the cancer patient’s worst nightmares.

What’s that? You’re just being “realistic?” Well, shove the realism up your unmentionable bits and keep it there.

Don’t give anyone struggling with cancer a moniker that contains the word ‘cancer’ in it. Someone I love kept calling me Cancer Girl, like I was a superhero or something. Even in the throes of dealing with it, I didn’t want to hear the word cancer, much less have it associated with me as a nickname, and so I wanted to punch him in the nethers each and every single time he uttered the words. (But I didn’t. I didn’t say a word. I am now, though. Don’t do it.)

Say you’re an acquaintance of someone who’s dealing with cancer, make sure that every time you run into her, your face doesn’t crumple into a look of sorrow, your eyebrows knit together over a pair of puppy-dog eyes as you whine: “How are youuuuu?” in a soap opera voice. She probably was fine until the moment she laid eyes on you and now you’ve ruined the rest of her day with your faux pity.

On the other hand, when the patient is going through treatment, don’t ever tell her she looks bald, skinny, bloated, ashy, gray, red, sickly, even if it’s true. Lie if you need to. Tell her that she’s glowing, beautiful, vibrant, alive. (All of these rules apply to both men and women, by the way.)

One day when I was in the middle of chemo, my daughter’s nursery school teacher said to me: “Aren’t you supposed to be looking worse during chemo? How do you get more beautiful every day?” I swear I wanted to leave my husband right then and there, and marry this woman. I will adore her for life, not because of some compliment that more than likely wasn’t true, but because of her generosity of spirit and the gift of hope that she gave me through a few simple words uttered with pure intentions.

Listen. This is particularly important. When the person is in remission, say, one or two years out from treatment, hell, even six months out from treatment, don’t keep bringing up cancer every time you see them. Say you happen to run into the person in a social situation where everyone’s talking about the weather or politics or those crazy celebrities and their nutty antics, please please please don’t say anything like:

Your skin looks SO great, not like all the other times I’ve seen you when you looked so sick and kind of yellow, you know? Maybe even almost green. Like you weren’t doing so well. But now your skin looks like a healthy person’s skin. Even your hair. Hey, how often do you go to the oncologist? When is your next appointment? How are you feeeeeling?”

Because I promise you the person, no matter how polite she’s being, isn’t taking it well. If she wanted to bring it up, she would have. Because, with a few exceptions we can discuss at some point, she has either already moved on or is trying to move on. She’s hoping to forget the horrors she endured. She doesn’t want to relive it. She certainly doesn’t want to be reminded of it in a social situation. And so more than likely, she wants to take your smug little face and do violent things to it. Even if her face is a perfectly arranged mask of social civility.

Any questions?

Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, Detroit News, and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her daily blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.

Post by:
Filed under: Cancer

soundoff (1,613 Responses)
  1. LebnEncox

    Hydrea safe online pharmacies Xeloda

    May 19, 2021 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Social Media Marketing Services


    May 19, 2021 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. AnooEncox

    taking viagra with beer https://llviagra.com/ dangers viagra men

    May 19, 2021 at 08:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Eye Exam Place Near Me

    This excellent website definitely has all the info I wanted concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.


    May 19, 2021 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Maui Jim Prescription Sunglasses Near Me


    May 19, 2021 at 09:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Prescription Lenses Near Me

    Howdy! This blog post could not be written much better! Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I am going to send this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!


    May 19, 2021 at 09:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jacuzzi Stores

    Great article! We will be linking to this great content on our site. Keep up the great writing.


    May 19, 2021 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Vinyl Signs Near Me


    May 19, 2021 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Sheet Metal Fabrication Services

    I blog often and I genuinely appreciate your information. The article has really peaked my interest. I'm going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about once per week. I subscribed to your RSS feed too.


    May 19, 2021 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Fabrication Companies Near Me

    Excellent article! We will be linking to this great post on our site. Keep up the great writing.


    May 19, 2021 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. gifts for a dog mom


    May 19, 2021 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. safeco windshield repair

    I want to to thank you for this excellent read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you saved as a favorite to check out new things you post…


    May 19, 2021 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sprinter Truck Repair

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up plus the rest of the website is really good.


    May 19, 2021 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Restoration Los Angeles


    May 19, 2021 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RV Bedroom Los Angeles


    May 19, 2021 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. RV Awning Riverside


    May 19, 2021 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ram Van Frame Repair

    I used to be able to find good advice from your articles.


    May 19, 2021 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. FmrfEncox

    cialis mail order https://cialisee.com/ free samples for cialis

    May 19, 2021 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. SEO Marketing Companies


    May 19, 2021 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. toy hauler upgrades


    May 19, 2021 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. box truck repair panels


    May 19, 2021 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. orange county collision

    I was able to find good information from your content.


    May 19, 2021 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Video Marketing Firms

    Iím impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog thatís both equally educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy that I came across this in my hunt for something concerning this.


    May 19, 2021 at 23:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. RV Supplies Riverside


    May 19, 2021 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. bucket truck repair


    May 20, 2021 at 00:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Google Marketing Experts

    Hi, I do think your blog could possibly be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping issues. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Besides that, great site!


    May 20, 2021 at 02:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. LbsoZisse

    cialis no prescription overnight delivery http://ucialisdas.com/ dapoxetine and cialis

    May 20, 2021 at 03:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Internet Marketing Consultants Near Me

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will return yet again since i have saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    May 20, 2021 at 03:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Internet Marketing Consultant


    May 20, 2021 at 04:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. LbsoZisse

    cialis 5 mg https://ucialisdas.com/ cheapest 10mg cialis

    May 20, 2021 at 05:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Social Media Marketing Firms Near Me


    May 20, 2021 at 05:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Local Marketing Agencies Near Me

    This site was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something that helped me. Thank you!


    May 20, 2021 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Content Marketing Company


    May 20, 2021 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Local Marketing Agency


    May 20, 2021 at 07:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Social Media Marketing Services Near Me


    May 20, 2021 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. SEO Marketing Companies Near Me

    Excellent article. I am going through a few of these issues as well..


    May 20, 2021 at 09:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Social Media Marketing Companies Near Me

    Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe that this site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the info!


    May 20, 2021 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Video Marketing Agency

    This is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Brief but very precise info… Thank you for sharing this one. A must read post!


    May 20, 2021 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Digital Marketing Specialist

    Good post! We are linking to this great article on our website. Keep up the good writing.


    May 20, 2021 at 10:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Video Marketing Business


    May 20, 2021 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Content Marketing Experts


    May 20, 2021 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Social Media Marketing Consultant


    May 20, 2021 at 12:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. RV Supplies Orange County


    May 20, 2021 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Handicap Van Repair


    May 20, 2021 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. remodel motorhome interior


    May 20, 2021 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Dodge Sprinter Repair Shops

    Having read this I thought it was extremely informative. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this short article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!


    May 20, 2021 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. RV Storage Orange County

    Wonderful article! We are linking to this great post on our site. Keep up the great writing.

    http://radio.cancaonova.com/iframe-loader/?t=Dating Single: No Longer a Mystery – Rádio&ra=&url=http://ocrv.vip/rv-repair-shop-bell-california

    May 20, 2021 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. temecula tv repair

    Very good post. I definitely love this site. Stick with it!


    May 20, 2021 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. rv upgrade store

    Great web site you have here.. It’s difficult to find good quality writing like yours nowadays. I seriously appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


    May 20, 2021 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Flooring Near Me

    That is a great tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Brief but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read post!


    May 20, 2021 at 21:47 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32

Leave a Reply to synapse x


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.