The words we use make assumptions about how our patients view their conditions and experiences. Assumptions that are faulty or do not match that patient’s own feelings about themselves can cause communication to break down or even lead to unintended emotional fallout. Maintaining a language of openness and neutrality that will enable them to guide the contexts of these conversations to best suit their needs is far better; then, as the relationship continues, the language they use can be adopted and used by you.

Many words and phrases should be avoided when speaking to a person affected by breast cancer, unless the person uses them first to express themselves.

  • Warrior
  • Fighter
  • Survivor
  • Floating along the diagnosis process
  • Journey
  • Be one with your diagnosis
  • Peaceful surrender
  • New adventure to overcome
  • New normal
  • Battle
  • Your Cancer
  • Hero
  • War
  • Don’t worry
  • Everything is going to be okay
  • Think positive

The following examples are neutral words and phrases that may be used when speaking to persons affected by breast cancer.

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  • Patient with breast cancer
  • Diagnosis
  • I can see why you labeled the cancer that way
  • I hear what you are saying
  • I can see why you are worried
  • It’s normal to feel that way
  • Thank you for sharing that with me

At the same time, seek to ask questions that can lead to open, forthright responses. Because these questions do not make assumptions about your patient’s frame of mind, they are less likely to guide them accidentally into unwanted emotional territory.

  • How do you feel about your breast cancer diagnosis?
  • Where do you see yourself in reference to other patients with breast cancer?
  • How are you coping with the diagnosis?
  • Are there any terms or phrases that you like to use when describing how you feel in regard to the diagnosis?

Providing Sources of Support

When speaking to patients, providing support is crucial. There are many ways to provide support, and our use of language and how we listen are as vital as any. In my time at CancerCare, I have seen this played out many times. In addition to the above, I invite you to explore what we are able to offer.

Joseline Lopez is with the CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance Foundation.


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