Saturday, July 11, 2015

I Didn't Know What to Say

I often see articles written about supporting friends through mastectomies, and one of the most covered topics is "What Do I Say?"  I never understood this until now.  I had friends and acquaintances I thought I'd hear from, or hoped I hear from, but never did throughout my surgery and recovery.  I get it, kinda.  It's uncomfortable.   You don't want say anything offensive, you don't want to trivialize it or you just plain don't know what to say.  It's especially tough for guys.  Its not easy talking about breasts, or losing them, with your guy friends, although some really came through and I love them for it.   I've been in that uncomfortable situation of not knowing what to say.  I didn't know what to say to my own mother.  I was young.  We didn't talk about boobs.  Perhaps that's why I'm so overly open with my own children...and the world, talking about breasts.  I don't want people to feel awkward.  I'm open with all of you because I want to help bridge the gap.  In speaking to a friend of mine this morning, she said something to me that hit the nail on the head...
I can imagine it can be very isolating, others can sympathize but not really understand what you are going through.

Some things can hurt when said, and we know you don't mean harm by saying them, because after all, you're our friends, but they might.  I think people say these things because they are trying to lighten up the situation, they want to connect somehow, they honestly don't know what to do or say, or they're nervous.  So, they say them.  Now, that being said, I talk differently to my very close friends than I do my acquaintances, so I give them a little more liberty to be candid with me.   They talk openly about the new "girls" and I know they mean it with all sincerity and love.   However, these are things I repeatedly found in blog after blog of women going through mastectomies that hurt them.  These women ask that people don't say:
  • things like commenting on a great boob job as a result of the surgery, or saying they can totally relate because they've had a boob job.  Don't say these things, at least not first.  You might have a close friend who is totally OK with this (I have close friends who were able to do this), but if you're not that close, let HER bring it up or say it first.  Not you.  Let her ask you about your boob job, implants or crack the first comment about her new breasts. 
  • things like "don't worry."  We're worried, we've been worrying since we found out we were BRCA+ or since we made the decision to have surgery due to cancer.  Of course we're going to worry.  Its uncharted territory for us, even though MANY woman have gone through it before us and MANY women will go through it after us.  We only know ourselves and our own journey. So yes, we're going to worry.
  • things like "you'll be fine."  We know we'll recover from the surgery, eventually, but it's a long journey of mental recovery, not just physical.  Yes, we will get through it, but "you'll be fine" kinda takes the whole journey away from us. 
  • things like "can I see them?" or "can I touch them?"  Trust me, when we're ready, if we're ever ready, to share our new breasts with you, we'll offer it up first.  At this point, for me, it becomes an educational tool, but one that I get to share on my own terms.  You'll know who you are.
  • things like "its over now, you can move on," or "why are you still upset?"  Its a journey.  Mentally and physically.  We have good days and we have bad days.  We have a constant reminder in the mirror every time we shower, get dressed and try to make a bra fit.  We might have to have revision surgeries down the road, shopping for clothes changes and our breasts are still settling for the first year.  So, no, its not over.  I'm four weeks out and people assume I'm healed and back to normal.  Nope, it takes time.

By Paul (Flickr: Happy Valentines Day) [CC BY 2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons

So here's the thing.  There's no right thing to say that will fit every individual.  There's no magical phrase that is going to take away all the fears of a person going through this.  You can't change it and you can't take it away.  But, there are things you can ask or say that will show us you're by our side.  You know your friend best.  Here are some common things I found among blogs.  Things like:
  • ask why we're having a particular type of surgery vs. another.  There are so many options these days, we want to help others understand.  We want to educate.  We want to hopefully save someone else's life, while feeling like a woman again.
  • tell us how you can help us during the recovery.  We don't always know how to ask for help, and many of us won't.  There's too many other things on our minds that we're taking care of.  If you can't talk about it or are uncomfortable, send a "I'm thinking of you" card or even just flowers with no note at all.  We'll get it.  Tell our family which day you'll bring dinner or tend the kids.  Give a day off to the caregiver.  You be the decision maker.   We know that these gestures come from the heart when you don't know what else to do or say.
  • don't feel like you have to have answers or a comeback to everything we say.  Let us just open up and spill it all out if it does happen.  When my daughter found me sobbing one night, she simply wrapped her arms around me and said, "I hope you feel better soon."  That was perfect.  She didn't try to fix me, she didn't tell me to stop crying, and she didn't tell me it was going to be OK.  She just let me be.  Acknowledge our emotions, don't try to divert them or brush them off.
  • ask how you can help with or join us in our back to exercise routine.  When you've had a mastectomy, you have to treat any exercise as if its the first time all over again.  We have to go slowly, letting our muscles stretch, work on expanding our range of motion and deal with the pain of scar tissue.  Many go through physical therapy.  This is something many friends don't know about recovery.  

I'm blessed to have a husband who knew exactly what to do for me.  Not only did he take care of me every step of the way, he made an inspirational video for me to watch the night before my surgery.  What I LOVED the most was that it was friends and acquaintances sharing stories of my strengths, what they liked about me, simply being cheerleaders, telling me they were thinking of me and some even shared some laughter (knowing our relationship was tight enough).  No advice and no one trying to fix me.  I love this video.  It was perfect.

In the end, don't worry about saying the wrong thing, just make sure to let them know you are there for them and thinking of them.  Let them know in some way that you are a part of their support network as they go through all of this.  Like I said, you know your relationship best.  BFFs sometimes have a little more leeway with comments than acquaintances so, but we want to hear from all of you.  We love you.

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