by Mary Helen Darah

It’s October and for many people the month means visits to the apple orchard, football games and consuming 900 calorie pumpkin beverages. Yet for 3.5 million breast cancer survivors, including those still being treated, October has far greater meaning. It is officially breast cancer awareness month and the iconic pink ribbon will be slapped on everything from laundry detergent to frozen burritos. I know I speak for many survivors and those still in treatment, that we have awareness pretty much covered. What we are in dire need of is a cure. There is also something else survivors crave–understanding. Experiences vary, but I thought it would be helpful to share what my kids would call “no brainers” of what to avoid saying to someone going through the cancer journey.
Do not tell us to relax! Cancer makes you feel as if you’re trapped underwater while people are telling you to take a deep breath and stay calm. As I recall, the last thing I wanted to do was “chill out.” I tried to explain this to a neighbor who kept insisting I should sit down and relax. I would have preferred she offer assistance in pulling out my washer and dryer and helping me remove dust bunnies in case I didn’t make it through surgery.
We liked the originals better! I used to be a 36 D. My breasts were one of the few things on my 43 year old body that were still heading north. It was not comforting to hear, “Well, now you can have a perky new pair.” The all-time “ouch” comment after venting about my discomfort and pain during reconstruction was hearing, “All this for a pair of boobs?” Yes, it was a lot, including drainage tubes, needles, and wondering if you will ever feel comfortable in your own skin again. Also, do not judge the decision. I usually responded by asking if my decision would be questioned if it were any other body part.
Do not tell someone going through chemo that they are CUTE! I remember hearing Robin Williams explain how male pandas felt so degraded when they come to the USA. They leave China with names like Ping Dong Ma which means “bear with testis of steel.” They arrive here with the expectation to “be the bear” and mate, only to get here and be renamed as Ling Ling. We pink survivors are not just fighting the battle of a lifetime but for life itself. Tell survivors they look kick ass, chic, strong yet feminine, anything but CUTE. A dear friend of mine told me how “CUTE” I looked then whispered to someone in the room, “I wouldn’t leave the house if that were me.” Now that’s something to shout not whisper. Do remind survivors how tough they are for heading out in the world and showing the “enemy” that it is not going to rob them of living their life to their fullest.
Do not ask a stage 4 warrior when their treatment will end! My dear friend Anne responds to that inquiry with, “When I do.” Stage 4 survivors, or the “forgotten fours” as I like to refer to them, will never get a reprieve from the battle. Many have expressed feelings of isolation and often feel as if they are being judged. It’s almost as though somehow the cancer has returned because of something they did or did not do. I have personally watched a marathon running, organic eating, supplement taker, and a woman who was a beam of positive energy, lowered into the ground.
Survivors come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. Take your lead from them. I am a sharer (says Captain Obvious) but others going through the experience appreciate privacy.
That being said, the absolute worst thing you could ever do is ignore someone going through the cancer journey because you don’t know what to say. One survivor told me that she would be at parties and people would come up to her husband and ask how she was doing even though she was just a few feet away. Don’t know what to say? Say that! If you don’t have the words, be the arms to hug, hand to hold and the ears to listen.