What Not to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer

Over the past eight months, 99.9% of the conversations I’ve had with people about my cancer diagnosis have been positive and supportive. People have been overwhelming kind to my husband, my kids, and me.

But there have been exceptions.

Last week, my kids and I were early for camp. Since that alone was a minor miracle, I decided to reward us with a quick stop at Starbucks. With visions of caffeine dancing in my head, we pulled into the crowded parking lot and hustled into the packed store. The kids and I queued up, negotiating what I’d buy for them (I repeated “No, I am not getting you a cake on a stick” multiple times, much to their deep sadness). As we stepped up to the counter, I smiled at the barista and placed my order. Before I finished, she asked me a question.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said tentatively. “But is this because of an illness?” She pointed at her head as if it was my own. I stood before her clad in yoga pants and a t-shirt, with my head wrapped in a red bandana, making me look, I thought, like an avid Guns n Roses fan, or a mom trying to get her kids to camp on time. Apparently, she saw something else when she noticed the super short hair peeking out at the bandana’s edge.

I looked at her, startled. My son, on my left, piped up. “She had breast cancer!” But the Starbucks was too noisy for her to hear.

“Well,” I replied, as other customers moved around me to place their orders at the second register. “That is incredibly rude.” I readied my Starbucks app for payment, leaning in to swipe.

“Oh,” she stammered. “It’s just that my aunt had breast cancer, and she died. I wanted to tell you that you’re brave.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, pushing my kids to the bar to pick up my drink, which would later turn out to be wrong.

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” she said, calling out in front of the other customers as we made our way across the store.

“It’s okay,” I said, though it wasn’t.

breast cancer

After I dropped the kids off at camp, I drove home, stewing about the exchange with the barista. I hadn’t behaved as graciously as I could have – I hadn’t needed to call her saying something I found to be rude, for example – but mostly, I was upset. I was offended. I was hurt.

I had only recently gotten to the point where my entire head was covered in hair, and had never gone out in public without a wig, scarf, or hat covering those barely there follicles. My husband and a few close friends had encouraged me to show off my minuscule locks, but I hesitated. The barista calling attention to my head – in front of my kids and during the morning rush, no less – told me my hair was still too short. I still looked like somebody with cancer.

And, then to tell me that her aunt, the person who inspired her to reach out to me, had died from the kind of cancer I had been working to rid my body of…. It felt like a punch in the stomach.

I know that barista meant well. She was fairly young so perhaps she didn’t have much experience interacting with people who are sick. I hope she thinks twice before she reaches out to someone else, though I hope she continues to want to connect with people who remind her of her aunt. Maybe by hearing their stories of healing, she’ll feel better and know some peace.

Until then, she can at least work on getting drink orders right.

Photo credit: 000061550004 via photopin (license)

  1. August 15, 2016
  2. August 15, 2016