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Five Simple Rules for Talking About Cancer

by Mary Beth Hall

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After experiencing many times when telling someone about my breast cancer diagnosis and the person immediately telling me all of their problems in great detail, turning me into the counselor again and again, I wondered what was happening. Counseling is a tiring profession. I know; I’m a high school guidance counselor. A counselor doesn’t just listen. A counselor actively listens. This is a verb. It means staying involved, maintaining eye contact, responding, and “being there.” Why were people putting me in this position when I was already tired from the cancer and the shock? It was completely wearing me out.

I’ve since come to the mature realization that we judge others by their actions and judge ourselves by our motives. I needed to focus on others’ intended motives, regardless of their actions or words. Sometimes I amaze myself with my maturity. I’ve decided when I grow up I want to be just like me.

From my experience, I have come up with a few rules about what to say and what not to say when someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer.

Rule #1 When someone tells you devastating news, do not turn the conversation back to yourself. Focus on that person. Make no “I” or “me” statements throughout the entire conversation. This is not about you – unless the statement is something like this: “I would like for you to let me give you one million dollars.” Then you can use “I” and “me” all you want. Unfortunately the “I” and “me” statements I got did not involve millions of dollars.

Rule #2 Say something beautiful.

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Mary Beth Hall

On the day I received my diagnosis, a doctor friend from church called. We talked at length about procedures, techniques, and advancements in medicine, and then he said something wonderful. He shared when he heard the news at the hospital about my diagnosis he got excited because he sees God allowing these things to happen to people who will glorify Him throughout it. What a beautiful statement for my raw emotions. I hoped I was up to the task.

I stopped myself from verbalizing that I really and truly hoped God would never be so kind as to allow him the same honor one day. I simply ooze maturity.

Rule #2 Say something beautiful.

Instead of staying home in shock the next day, I acted like a mature and responsible adult and went to work. I was standing in the hallway among hundreds of rushing, talking, hitting, flirting, laughing (the nerve!) adolescents when a teacher friend came to me and asked “the question”: “How are you?” I responded, “The good news is my hair looks really cute today. The bad news is I have breast cancer.”

He then did the perfect thing. He told me he loved me and listed all of the reasons why (it took three seconds). I soaked up every word. I had only known him for six months, but I considered that plenty of time to get to know me enough to love me.

Rule #3 Remind the person with a diagnosis why he or she is important to you.

Later that day, another teacher friend asked me “the question.” When I told her, she then proceeded to tell me all about her health and marriage problems, thus making me the counselor for a 45-minute session. I was exhausted.

Rule #4 See Rule #1 about whom you are to focus on. (Fellow survivors, see the above scenario as a reminder about focusing on motives.)

I went to church the following Sunday. The very first person I told said, “Gee, are you scared? I know a lot of people who died from that. You know so-and-so’s sister? Her mom died from breast cancer. And do you know suchn- such’s third cousin removed? She died a horrible death from it, too, and then there’s …”

I missed the rest of the conversation because I was busy shoving people down, clawing their backs, and stomping on their bodies to get out of there.

Rule #5 Refrain from saying stupid things to the person with a cancer diagnosis. If you cannot refrain from saying stupid things, do not talk at all. Just shut up. (Fellow survivors, if someone says something like the above to you, you do not have to focus on their motive. You have my permission to determine the person is an idiot and say bad things about him over and over in your mind).

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Mary Beth Hall is a breast cancer survivor, wife, mother of two, educator, and author. For more information, visit her website,

Excerpted with permission from Lessons from a Bald Chick by Mary Beth Hall, copyright © 2009, published by BookLocker.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2009.