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. Nearest RV Repair

    Hello, There's no doubt that your web site could be having web browser compatibility issues. Whenever I look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in I.E., it has some overlapping issues. I merely wanted to give you a quick heads up! Besides that, fantastic website!


    June 15, 2021 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Nearby RV Repair

    This site definitely has all of the info I wanted about this subject and didnít know who to ask.


    June 15, 2021 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RV Repair Orange County

    After looking into a few of the blog articles on your web page, I honestly appreciate your way of blogging. I book marked it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back in the near future. Take a look at my web site as well and tell me your opinion.


    June 15, 2021 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RV Repair Huntington Beach


    June 15, 2021 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. RV Repair Orange County California

    Excellent blog you've got here.. Itís difficult to find high quality writing like yours nowadays. I truly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


    June 15, 2021 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. RV Repair Places Near Me

    After looking into a few of the blog articles on your site, I honestly appreciate your technique of writing a blog. I bookmarked it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my web site too and let me know your opinion.


    June 15, 2021 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Camper Repair Shop Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. RV Repair Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. RV Repair Garden Grove


    June 15, 2021 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. RV Repair


    June 15, 2021 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Camper Repair Shop Near Me

    I couldnít refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!


    June 15, 2021 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. RV Repair Shop Near Me

    Very nice blog post. I definitely love this website. Continue the good work!


    June 15, 2021 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Repair Shop

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on this. And he in fact bought me dinner simply because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss this matter here on your site.


    June 15, 2021 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Repair Mission Viejo


    June 15, 2021 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RV Repairs Near My Location


    June 16, 2021 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. RV Repair Near Me


    June 16, 2021 at 01:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Repair Around Me


    June 16, 2021 at 03:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. RV Repair Around Me

    Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day. It's always useful to read articles from other authors and use a little something from other sites.


    June 16, 2021 at 06:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Repair Near Me Now


    June 16, 2021 at 06:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. RV Repair Shops Nearby


    June 16, 2021 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Sprinter Repair Orange County


    June 16, 2021 at 10:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me

    Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking the time and actual effort to generate a superb articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I procrastinate a whole lot and don't seem to get nearly anything done.


    June 16, 2021 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. rv rentals near me


    June 16, 2021 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. firehouse subs near me


    June 16, 2021 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. body shop near me


    June 16, 2021 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. warehouse jobs near me


    June 16, 2021 at 17:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. dollar store near me

    An outstanding share! I've just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting a little homework on this. And he in fact bought me lunch due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this subject here on your internet site.


    June 16, 2021 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. frozen yogurt near me

    Right here is the right website for everyone who hopes to understand this topic. You realize a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually will need toÖHaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a subject that's been discussed for years. Great stuff, just wonderful!


    June 16, 2021 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. panera bread near me

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It's always useful to read content from other writers and use a little something from their web sites.


    June 16, 2021 at 20:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. money order near me


    June 16, 2021 at 20:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. taco bell near me

    I blog often and I seriously appreciate your content. This great article has really peaked my interest. I will book mark your website and keep checking for new information about once a week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.


    June 16, 2021 at 20:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. apple picking near me


    June 16, 2021 at 20:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me

    After exploring a number of the blog posts on your site, I really appreciate your technique of blogging. I saved as a favorite it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my web site too and let me know your opinion.


    June 16, 2021 at 22:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Repair San Clemente California


    June 16, 2021 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Camper Repair Near Me

    Everyone loves it when people get together and share ideas. Great website, keep it up!


    June 16, 2021 at 22:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. RV Repair Shops Near Me Now

    This is a really good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Short but very precise informationÖ Many thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!


    June 16, 2021 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Sprinter Repair Orange County

    Iím amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog thatís both equally educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy I found this during my hunt for something concerning this.


    June 17, 2021 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Nearest RV Repair

    That is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Short but very precise infoÖ Thanks for sharing this one. A must read article!


    June 17, 2021 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. RV Repair California


    June 17, 2021 at 01:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. academy sports near me


    June 17, 2021 at 03:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. RV Repair Mission Viejo


    June 17, 2021 at 04:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me


    June 17, 2021 at 04:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Sprinter Repair Costa Mesa


    June 17, 2021 at 04:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. free covid testing near me


    June 17, 2021 at 05:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. car detailing near me


    June 17, 2021 at 05:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Repair Places Near Me

    Your style is unique compared to other people I've read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just bookmark this web site.


    June 17, 2021 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. RV Repair Santa Ana

    This site truly has all the information and facts I wanted concerning this subject and didnít know who to ask.


    June 17, 2021 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Repair Near Me Now

    Hello there! This post could not be written much better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept talking about this. I most certainly will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he's going to have a good read. Thanks for sharing!


    June 17, 2021 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. dinner near me


    June 17, 2021 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Repair Garden Grove


    June 17, 2021 at 10:27 | 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

Post a comment


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.

October 2010
  • An error has occurred, which probably means the feed is down. Try again later.