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Breast Cancer Advice: Being Helpful Versus Hurtful

Offering advice to others is usually helpful, but sometimes can end up being hurtful. As breast cancer veterans, do those of us who’ve been there tend to overshare?
PUBLISHED July 21, 2017
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Webster’s Dictionary describes a veteran as a person who has had long experience in a particular field. With that in mind, a breast cancer survivor would surely be considered a veteran. A person who has been through the trenches of the breast cancer war knows the rigors of the disease and is very knowledgeable. They have learned much through their own experiences. In essence, they have become a self-professed expert in the field of breast cancer, whether or not they wanted to achieve this status. Most breast cancer veterans have a heart for the newly diagnosed. They want to aid their comrades in the fight and often have valuable information to share. But when does this desire to share information transition from being helpful to hurtful? The only way I can begin to explain is to talk a little bit about my own experience.  

I’m a breast cancer survivor of three years, and even though that’s a fairly short time, I now consider myself a veteran among the ranks of other breast cancer survivors. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned of two new cases of women being diagnosed with breast cancer. Those two cases are very different. One case involves a dear friend, someone I’ve known for years. The other is that of a complete stranger, a friend of a friend. As soon as I heard of their diagnoses, I wanted to reach out to both women. My first instinct was to offer heartfelt compassion. My second instinct was to offer helpful advice. I wanted to share information that might keep these two from going through any unnecessary trauma or stress. That’s just part of who I am. I’m a helper and I’m a fixer. So, I waited and when the questions came, I gave the answers I could give. I’d learned a lot about breast cancer over the past three years. Some of it from my medical team, some from books I’d read, some from internet research, but most of my knowledge had come from my own personal experience.  

As I shared information, I found myself wanting to tell my entire breast cancer story in one fell swoop, but realized it would be an information overload and would probably scare these women to death. I did my best to temper my answers and only answer each question as it was presented. I made a mental note to answer with accurate facts. If I was asked to share more, I did, but I tried to be cognizant of the amount of information I felt each person could handle. But why did I feel the need to offer information in the first place? Surely, they’d find out what they needed to know as their surgeries and treatments progressed, wouldn’t they? I thought back to those early days when my journey first began. I was newly diagnosed and wished for someone to come alongside me and offer helpful advice. I had so many questions and no answers. I had no one to consult and had no idea what to expect. The more I remembered, the more my heart ached for these sweet women, and that’s when I had an epiphany. My initial lack of knowledge was the driving force behind my wanting to help others. I wanted to impart wisdom in hopes of helping these women avoid as many hurdles as possible. If I could keep one unnecessary tear from being shed, all the pain and uncertainty I’d endured would have been worth it.  

From my friend, there were the typical first timer questions, the ones that seemed too simple or too silly to ask a doctor. As she asked her questions, I felt needed. I assured her it was OK to ask the embarrassing questions and explained absolutely nothing was off limits. She could ask me anything. This gave her great comfort. Because she knew me well, she felt the freedom to ask many of the pertinent questions most women have when they are faced with an initial diagnosis. She asked about what would happen after the initial testing was complete and I spoke to her from my experience, but also explained every diagnosis was different. What I experienced may not be what she’d experience. I felt, in a small way, I was doing a good thing. By sharing things I’d wished someone would have told me, I hoped she’d have a little more peace of mind. The stranger, who was a friend of a friend, appreciated my reaching out to her via Facebook messenger, but did not wish to receive any information or advice. I understood completely and respected her decision. I did offer to make myself available should she change her mind in the future. Both cases were similar, yet different.  

Knowing when to offer advice and when not to speak can be challenging. While it’s natural to want to help, harm can be done by giving too much information. For example, there’s no need to share specifics about surgical procedures or testing before it’s even been determined what individual needs a person might have. It would be counterproductive to talk about side effects from treatment or medication and would more than likely invoke feelings of fear.  

What I’ve learned over the past three years is that it’s best to listen when friends share their sad news. Instead of doling out free advice, it’s better to offer care and understanding. If they ask questions, answer to the best of your ability but don’t interject extra information. It’s important to sympathize but never dramatize and in so doing, you’ll be helpful with your advice instead of hurtful.  

The breast cancer sisterhood is a unique one. We are united by a common bond. We understand each other and want to offer love and support whenever we can, but we must be careful to do it with care at all times. We always want to help, never harm
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