Breast Cancer Caregiver Tips

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • When someone you love gets breast cancer, life as you know it takes a sharp turn. Suddenly you’re faced with a whole new set of challenges, not the least of which is trying to navigate your way through completely unknown territory. You may quickly get up to speed on the medical vocabulary; rework your daily schedule around doctor’s appointments and tests; and arrange for childcare, or figure out insurance coverage. But the emotional landscape can be awfully foggy.

    Do you adopt a Pollyanna-like attitude of “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine”? Make plans that include the possibility of your loved one dying? Or do you wait for direction from the patient (even though this very capable person seems suddenly unable to cope with even the basic details of her day)? What should you do?

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    Here are a few hints from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence: cared-for, and caregiver—me!

    Five things you probably shouldn’t do:
    •Don’t ask your friend, “What can I do for you?” She’s just been diagnosed with cancer; she’s still trying to absorb what might be a death sentence, and she’s understandably dazed. Instead, ask specific questions. “Would you like me to run a load of wash? Can I grab some groceries for you? Does Jared need a ride to basketball practice?” Specifics allow her to give simple “yes” and “no” answers. Ask her enough questions, and she’s sure to identify something she’d appreciate help with.

    •Never, EVER tell cancer horror stories. Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing the number of people who launch into a long description that begins with “I knew this woman who had breast cancer…” And then proceed to detail the awful, excruciating, miserable things the subject experienced. Just like snowflakes, no two people ever have the same cancer experience. So it’s no use trying to compare. One exception: DO tell positive stories about the hospital or cancer center the person will be treated at. Telling her that you’ve heard the staff is unbelievably friendly and brilliant and caring is a big plus.

    •On the flip side, don’t tell your friend “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.” Because no one can be sure of that; and you both know it. Telling her not to worry can be perceived as giving her the brush-off: “Don’t bother me with your silly fears.” It can also make her feel weak.

    Tell her, “I’m sure you’re going to get the best care possible, and those docs at our hospital are brilliant” (see above). Tell her, “You know what they say about sticking together for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health? This is the worse part, the sickness part, and I WILL be with you through it.”

    Reassure her that whatever she’s feeling is natural; that she’s not a wimp, not being weak. And DO tell her that there are literally millions of breast cancer survivors out there, and she has every right to believe that she’ll become one herself.

    •Don’t look woebegone, downcast, or timid. It’s a small thing, but when you’ve just been told you have cancer, your emotions are on overdrive. And your sensitivity is heightened. Seeing your best friend or daughter or sister looking “down” will send you into a tailspin. So try to “put on a happy face” (or at least a calm and loving face) before connecting.


  • •If you’re a work colleague as well as a friend, don’t assume your friend will take time off from her job—no matter how serious the diagnosis. Before you start asking about a leave of absence, sick time, and who’s going to take over her responsibilities, ask how long she thinks she’ll be out. If she’s having a lumpectomy and says “Oh, just a half day for the surgery, I’ll be back the next day”—don’t argue. She desperately wants to feel normal; she longs for a life that’s not disrupted by cancer. And she may very well be tough enough to work right through treatment.

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    And here are five things you probably SHOULD do:
    •Say this: “Tell me how you feel. I just want to listen. Nothing you say will upset me, I promise.” Your friend needs somewhere to vent, but she’s probably a veteran caregiver herself. She won’t want to worry you or make you feel bad, so she may decide to keep all of her thoughts to herself, rather than risk hurting you. Encourage her to open up.

    •Laugh. Joke. Talk about normal things. Feel her out, and if you can coax a smile out of her, stay on that path. Oftentimes simply talking about everyday stuff—catching up on office gossip, discussing the latest kid issues—is just what the doctor ordered, emotionally. It’s a welcome respite from staring at that elephant in the corner: cancer.

    •See if there’s anyone bugging her, and offer to brainstorm a solution. As women, we’re SO concerned about relationships. Maybe she feels her oncologist doesn’t like her (when in reality he’s a brilliant, left-brained researcher with a limited bedside manner). Maybe one of your mutual friends has suddenly disappeared from her life (not because she doesn’t care… but because she cares too much, and can’t handle the pressure). Or maybe (and this is very common) her teenage kids seem totally unconcerned with their mother’s illness (when in reality they’re scared to death and don’t have the maturity to face their fears). Ask her about her relationships; I guarantee SOMETHING will come up you can help her with.

    •Ask if she’d like company at her doctor’s appointments. Again, as women we pride ourselves on being capable. We’re the ones who offer help, not the ones who receive it. But doctor’s appointments, especially the first rounds, can be both confusing and scary. It really helps to have someone with you taking notes, asking clarifying questions, and providing moral support. Volunteer to be that person.

    •Do something fun. If she’s in the midst of radiation and feeling beat, take her out for a hot fudge sundae. If she’s in the hospital after surgery, ask if you can take her for a spin in a wheelchair. Believe me, staring at those four walls can get really boring! Cancer doesn’t have to be all serious, all the time. Trust me, a little lighthearted fun (or a LOT of lighthearted fun) is a huge plus.

Published On: July 06, 2008