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. Social Media Marketing Job

    After looking over a handful of the blog articles on your web page, I truly like your technique of writing a blog. I bookmarked it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back soon. Please visit my web site too and let me know how you feel.


    May 8, 2021 at 02:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Social Media Marketing Agency Orange County

    You are so interesting! I don't believe I've truly read anything like this before. So good to discover someone with some original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality!


    May 8, 2021 at 02:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Internet Marketing Consultants Near Me


    May 8, 2021 at 02:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. FmrfEncox

    comprar cialis online http://cialisee.com/ – online pharmacy cialis comparison free samples viagra cialis

    May 8, 2021 at 04:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Social Media Marketing Santa Ana

    I'd like to thank you for the efforts you've put in writing this website. I really hope to view the same high-grade content by you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my very own blog now 😉


    May 8, 2021 at 05:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Content Marketing Event


    May 8, 2021 at 05:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Video Marketing Association

    Hi there! This article could not be written any better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I'll send this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a great read. Thank you for sharing!


    May 8, 2021 at 06:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Video Marketing Ideas

    This excellent website truly has all of the information and facts I wanted concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.


    May 8, 2021 at 06:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Content Marketing Management

    A motivating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you ought to publish more about this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people don't discuss such subjects. To the next! Many thanks!!


    May 8, 2021 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Social Media Marketing Consultants

    Next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won't disappoint me just as much as this particular one. After all, I know it was my choice to read through, nonetheless I really believed you would probably have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something that you can fix if you were not too busy looking for attention.


    May 8, 2021 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. GtnbCrulk

    recreational viagra https://jokviagra.com/ viagra reviews

    May 8, 2021 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. ambulance repair


    May 8, 2021 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. rv cabinets and furniture


    May 8, 2021 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Content Marketing Services


    May 8, 2021 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Local Marketing Services


    May 8, 2021 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. chloroquine diphosphate

    chloroquine tab https://chloroquineorigin.com/ clorquine

    May 8, 2021 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Internet Marketing Agency Near Me

    I love it whenever people get together and share views. Great website, continue the good work!


    May 8, 2021 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Social Media Marketing Reviews


    May 8, 2021 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Flooring California

    Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article. Thanks for providing this information.


    May 8, 2021 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. RV Technician Orange County


    May 8, 2021 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. JebgEncox

    no prescription pharmacies http://pharmacylo.com/ canadian pharmacy 1 internet online drugstore

    May 8, 2021 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. RV Bathroom Near Me

    You are so interesting! I don't believe I have read through anything like that before. So good to discover somebody with original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with some originality!


    May 8, 2021 at 22:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Digital Marketing Pro

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


    May 8, 2021 at 23:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. RV Upholstery Near Me


    May 9, 2021 at 00:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Content Marketing Management

    I want to to thank you for this fantastic read!! I absolutely loved every bit of it. I have got you saved as a favorite to check out new things you post…


    May 9, 2021 at 01:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Content Marketing Reviews


    May 9, 2021 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Content Marketing Management


    May 9, 2021 at 03:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Local Marketing California


    May 9, 2021 at 05:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Internet Marketing Companies


    May 9, 2021 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. RV Fiberglass Los Angeles


    May 9, 2021 at 06:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Content Marketing Experts

    An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me lunch because I found it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this matter here on your blog.


    May 9, 2021 at 07:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Google Marketing Job

    This site was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me. Kudos!


    May 9, 2021 at 08:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Social Media Marketing La Habra


    May 9, 2021 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Remodeling Orange County

    There is definately a lot to know about this subject. I really like all of the points you made.


    May 9, 2021 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Social Media Marketing Consultants Near Me

    Hello, I think your website may be having web browser compatibility issues. Whenever I look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine however, when opening in I.E., it has some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Apart from that, wonderful blog!


    May 9, 2021 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Internet Marketing Reviews


    May 9, 2021 at 10:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Content Marketing Experts

    Your style is so unique compared to other folks I've read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this blog.


    May 9, 2021 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Google Marketing Specialist

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you for supplying this information.


    May 9, 2021 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. RV Renovation Orange County

    I blog frequently and I really appreciate your content. This article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to take a note of your website and keep checking for new information about once a week. I opted in for your Feed as well.


    May 9, 2021 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. RV Interior Remodeling Los Angeles


    May 9, 2021 at 13:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Seo Marketing Quotes

    Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues. It was definitely informative. Your website is very useful. Thank you for sharing!


    May 9, 2021 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. BbshMile

    virectin vs viagra https://loxviagra.com/ viagra pill cost

    May 9, 2021 at 14:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Google Marketing Program

    It’s hard to come by knowledgeable people for this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks


    May 9, 2021 at 14:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Local Marketing Consultant


    May 9, 2021 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. JebgEncox

    Advair Diskus canadian pharmacy world Singulair

    May 9, 2021 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Generator Orange County

    This is a topic that is near to my heart... Thank you! Where are your contact details though?


    May 9, 2021 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Video Marketing Service

    Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely feel this amazing site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!


    May 9, 2021 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Collision Repair Riverside

    Aw, this was a very nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don't seem to get nearly anything done.


    May 9, 2021 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Video Marketing Store


    May 9, 2021 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Kitchen Orange County

    This site was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me. Kudos!


    May 9, 2021 at 17:30 | 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.