How to Talk to a Friend Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

Experts and breast-cancer survivors advise on what to say and do.

A friend was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Now what? Katherine Sharpe, MTS, senior vice president, patient and caregiver support for the American Cancer Society, advises sensitivity to your friend’s moods, and following her cues whenever possible (though it’s always appropriate to ask her how she’s doing). So we asked these six breast-cancer survivors for their guidance on what helps, what hurts—and what’s best left unsaid.

Keep Having Fun

 Nominate yourself as the president of the patient’s Fun Club: Plan excursions or other enjoyable activities, or bring meals based on the patient’s recipe box, since those are foods that her family will love. —Mary Alice Mraz

Make Sure It’s About Her

Try not to bombard your friend with a hundred questions; she’ll share when she’s ready. Instead, volunteer to be a Doctor Buddy. These visits can be so overwhelming that it helps to have an extra set of ears to hear what the doctor is saying. Also, it’s not meaningful to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because you probably don’t. Even if you’ve had breast cancer, everyone’s experience is different. —Idele Bailin

Don’t Dwell on Appearance

 When you’re going through chemotherapy, everyone wants to make you feel better. So many people told me, “You don’t even look like you’re sick.” They think they’re complimenting you, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Also, avoid talking about your friend’s weight loss or gain—and, if she’s lost her hair, never say, “It’s only hair.” —Nicole Ferguson

Be Present

You may want to hear about your friend’s treatment plan, but it’s more useful to say, “I’m coming with you to your treatments and doctor’s visits,” or “We’re going through this together.” Also, my son and daughter bought me an iPad so I could watch my favorite movies when I was having chemo. This act of kindness went a long way. —Linda Bryant  

Just Do It

 You may be inclined to ask your friend, “What can I do to help?” But I was so overwhelmed that I had no idea what I needed. The most helpful people were those who sprang into action. My friends and family set up a Meal Train, bringing food or gift cards so that I didn’t have to cook, and my family was always fed. We used the donations we received to have our house cleaned. —Erika Sears

Maintain Her Normal

Do not tell your friend, with any certainty, that she will be fine. You do not know. If you know someone who has survived cancer, offer to put the two of them in touch—but don’t be pushy. Be positive, but not over-the-top. Above all, keep in touch and continue to do “normal” things like eating out, catching a movie, and going shopping. A spa day is the best offer! —Gayle Parker

Learn about other ways you can help breast cancer survivors here.