When a friend or family member is diagnosed with breast cancer, many people don’t know how to react—or help. What can I really do? Will I say the wrong thing? Does she or he even want my help?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, it’s vital to support your loved one throughout diagnosis, treatment and recovery. In fact, one study showed that women with breast cancer who had support from their friends, families and even online groups had better outcomes following treatment, as well as higher rates of survival. Increased support from family may also help to prevent depression following a breast cancer diagnosis.
Not sure how you can help? We spoke with Ioana Hinshaw, MD, a medical oncologist with Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colorado, to learn the best ways to help a loved one with breast cancer.
A cancer diagnosis is scary for a patient’s loved ones, too. But during this daunting time in your friend or family member’s life, being present and offering to talk—about any subject, from their diagnosis to why the sky is blue—is key.
“Many people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say to a patient diagnosed with cancer. They don’t know how to react. I’ve seen a lot of people avoid contact simply because they don’t know what to say,” Dr. Hinshaw says.
Reaching out to your friend or family member and even saying something as simple as “I’m thinking of you” or “What can I do to help?” can be tantamount to their mental and emotional well-being.
Many people worry that they will be treated differently or that their relationships will be altered as a result of their illness. It’s also important to ensure your loved one knows they have your support, despite changes in their mood, abilities or appearance. “The most important thing is to be there to talk and reassure them that nothing has changed in the relationship—you’re there to support them,” says Hinshaw.
GO TO THEIR APPOINTMENTS
After a breast cancer diagnosis, doctor appointments can be overwhelming. Some patients are so flooded by information about their condition, treatment options and prognosis, they actually can’t remember many of the details of their conversations with their doctors, according to Hinshaw.
Offer to attend doctor’s visits with your friend or family member and take notes throughout; be sure to capture minute details, so your loved one can feel fully informed about their course of treatment and prognosis.
If a friend or family member is undergoing chemotherapy, never let them attend alone. Offer to drive to and from their treatments. Some gossip, Netflix, adult coloring pages or board games can be a welcome distraction. Even if they just rest of sleep through their treatment, a friendly face may help make the session feel less scary.
HELP WITH CHORES
When someone is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, household chores are likely the last thing on their mind—especially in the days following a chemo session. Hinshaw says: “The first two days after chemotherapy are very hard on patients—they can use the help.”
Prepping a few heat-and-eat dinners, doing a grocery run or pharmacy pick up, taking care of children and pets or cleaning her house will save your loved one a few hours of work and, more importantly, the energy they need to heal. Set up an online calendar among your friends and family members so you can divide up the good deeds among each other.
If you’re going to stop by their house, however, be sure to call or text ahead and ask for a good time. If he or she is feeling tired or under the weather, they may not be up for even a quick visit. Try to find times other than weekends to visit as well—getting through a week day may be a lot tougher and lonelier.
RESPECT THE DOCTOR’S ADVICE
Your role, as a friend or family member, is to be supportive and encouraging of the treatment recommended by your loved one’s medical team. “People without medical backgrounds offer opinions about what they’ve heard [about treatments] or alternative treatments. They may even discourage their friends from undergoing the recommended treatment,” says Hinshaw.
Despite your best intentions, you shouldn’t sway your friend or family member from following their doctor’s advice, recommend alternative treatments or share your own research into treatment options. You can show an interest, however, by asking questions about her treatment process, along with how she is feeling.
It is important to be a patient advocate, but you can do so by taking notes at their appointments, attending treatment sessions or simply lending a listening ear.
Your loved one has a lot on her mind—she has cancer, after all—so distract her! Take her thoughts off of her treatment with small surprises, like flowers, gifts she can actually use (such as comfy slippers, a journal or a new book) or even her favorite baked good.
If you know she has a treatment appointment coming up or has had a particularly hard week, take her on a coffee or tea date for a gossip session, see a funny movie or get a manicure and pedicure. Think about her day-to-day and the small things you can do to make it a little bit better—even if it’s something as simple as listening.
BE THERE AFTER TREATMENT IS OVER
The prognosis for many forms of breast cancers, especially with early detection, can be good. But even if your loved one is lucky enough to beat the disease, they will still need your love and support.
In the months following treatment, your friend or family member may worry that their life will never be the same. Chemotherapy can have lasting impacts on fertility, sexual health, body weight and physical appearance. She may become depressed while struggling through these changes.
Your loved one may get anxious before follow-up medical tests or worried that small aches and pains are because of a relapse. She may also continue to feel fatigued, long after treatment is over.
Don’t disappear when your loved one’s cancer does. Instead, continue to ask where they need help in their life, whether it’s reassurance that they are healthy and a kind ear to listen to their worries. If they feel up to it, encourage them to continue any hobbies or activities they may have stopped while treating their breast cancer.
“As a good friend, you have to be there and tell them nothing has changed—they’re the same person they used to be,” says Hinshaw.
Sourcing: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute