The Best Thing Anyone Ever Said to Me About My Cancer



Unfortunately, we all have a story about the stupidest thing anyone ever said to us about our cancer.  I was reminded of this by the TalkAboutHealth question I recently answered on this subject.  The answers were stunning – how did we get through those sometimes well-meaning, but hurtful statements?  Although I was glad to share my answer, I realized that the stupidest thing anyone ever said to me was far less important than the best.  So I want to turn the tables and talk about the best thing anyone ever said to me.  It happened early and was the first true gift of my cancer experience.

My questionable mammogram was done in late September of 2008.  In November, I was back at the breast center for a stereotactic core biopsy.  All the women I’ve talked to who have gone down this road agree this test is the most painful.  Basically, you lie stomach down and drop your breast through a hole in the table.  Underneath is a mammogram machine.  The radiologist exactly positions your breast (which takes a lot of pulling and stretching) and then the mammogram clamps down on your breast, pinning you to the table.  Then the real fun starts.  A core needle is inserted into the breast, laterally along the chest wall.  Oh, and for some reason, the machine makes loud noises.

Now, you’ve been given a pain killer, but it doesn’t work completely.  This process was so overwhelming, I nearly fainted on my way back to the dressing room.

When the radiologist had me positioned in the mammogram and was looking at the screen, she obviously noticed my anxiety.  She put her hand on my shoulder.  That’s when she told me, “I guarantee whatever it is you’re going to be okay, because it’s so small.”  This is a direct quote which I will never forget.

I was under great stress, but I immediately translated her words to mean the following:  “I’m a doctor, we rarely, if ever, say “guarantee”, so listen up.  When I say “whatever it is,” you and I both know I mean “cancer,” and, by saying, “you’re going to be okay,” I’m telling you, “you’re not going to die.”

I wasn’t actually diagnosed until the following February.  That one sentence got me through those many months of fear and worry, because at least I knew for sure I was going to live.   I’m sure the radiologist told me her name, but I wasn’t in a state to remember it.  I wish I did.  What I do remember are her words, which sustained me and pulled me through some very bad months.  It was the kindest, most important thing anyone told me during that diagnostic period, and I will always be grateful to her for saying it.

Although I never got the opportunity to thank the radiologist personally, I make a point to share her words with the medical students and residents I meet as a patient educator with The Connection’s Pathways Women’s Teaching Project.  I’ve talked about my work with this organization in other posts.  I do it because I know how important that one doctor’s statement was to me.  Hopefully, by passing that on to medical students and residents, they will understand that their interactions with their patients are equally important.   By taking her lesson to heart, I guarantee they will be better doctors and, more importantly, better healers.

Survival > Existence,


Image courtesy of Bram Cymet




Debbie's picture

I forgot to ask…..

What was the best thing anyone ever said to you and what did it mean to you to hear it? 


Rachel Pappas's picture

Nice things people say

Thank you for gently nudging us to see the positive, Debbie. You have a way of non-judgmentally coaxing us to stretch and grow, and you know, when we do it, we feel better. I have been stuck way too long on the negative comments – and yes people do unknowingly say incredibly ignorant things. But when you pay more attention to the positive comments – you feel better. And when you more than think about them, you actually say them out loud or write about them as you have, it does even more for you Here’s the one that made me smile biggest: My first real party nite out while in treatment. I was bald of course, though I was wearing a salmon colored scarf with a few light sequins. So cool LOL! Anyway, this guy was against the wall talking to my sister’s friend, and I’d just gotten there. He looked at me and smiled and when I smiled back he came over. He said out of the blue, “My mom has breast cancer. She just found out.” We started talking about it and then about other things. And no he was NOT hitting on me! His wife was with him and my husband was with me. Anyway, at one point he said, “You are really beautiful. If anyone tells you otherwise, tell them Johnny said you are just beautiful.” That made me feel good enough. But the real kicker is, later, when I asked him how long he’d known my sister’s friend who he was talking to, he said, “Oh, I don’t know her. We just met a few minutes ago.” I thought my sister’s friend knew him and mentioned I had cancer too, just like his mom. But no, here was this total stranger who came across this loud, jam-packed room to reach out to someone he didn’t know and to make me feel good. Now aint that nice???



Debbie's picture

Johnny Has a Beautiful Soul


Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story!  We all know how hard it is to live with cancer, but there are those moments which touch our hearts and strengthen us.  My connection with other people during my struggle is the gift of cancer for which I am most grateful.  Even if that person was only in your life for an evening, or a few minutes in an exam room, it still makes all the difference.  Johnny walked across that room to give you that gift.  What a great moment for both of you.  Thanks again and please be sure to share more of your story with us.


Rachel Pappas's picture

Back at ya Debbie about Johnny

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on my experience. I know you get bombarded by responses and it’s sweet that you stop and write back so often. But I can tell you love what you do.



Debbie's picture

I Certainly Do, Because I Get to Talk to People Like You

I certainly do, because I get to talk to people like you.  I love hearing our shared stories.  It’s such a thrill and honor to be able to do that here at WWGN.  Debbie

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