Less than two weeks after receiving her sixth Emmy, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A diagnosis of breast cancer can be shattering. One in eight women will get a breast cancer diagnosis. Louis-Dreyfus made the announcement highlighting that “she has the most glorious group of supportive and caring friends.”
A study published in the journal Cancer in June 2017 suggests that family and friends can have a positive influence on breast cancer treatment decisions.
Thanks to high profile individuals like Louis-Dreyfus, and breast cancer awareness campaigns like Breast Cancer Awareness month every October, women who “get the call” from their doctor to come into the office and discuss a possible breast cancer diagnosis may be more likely to bring along a friend or family member. The study surveyed 2,502 women with early stage breast cancer about two months after surgery. The subjects were asked to create a list of people who helped them make treatment decisions.
Among the subjects, half listed a minimum of three people, and 20 percent listed two people participating in treatment discussions and decisions. Ten percent of the subjects said they had no individuals weigh in during the decision-making process. Among the entire group, nearly 75 percent of the subjects said that their “support network,” which included friends, family, or both, talked with them about possible treatment options and also came with them to doctor appointments.
An interesting finding in the study was that African-American and Latina women had larger networks of support compared to Caucasian women. Among the group of subjects, single women and women without a partner or spouse also reported using a support network. Specific individuals that made up support networks included children, siblings, parents, other relatives, and friends.
The study found that larger support networks equated with “more deliberation” about treatment, which the researchers indicate could be important, given that many breast cancer diagnoses require complex treatments and that new treatments are constantly being approved and brought to the health care marketplace. When you deliberate, the likelihood is that you are taking time and weighing the pros and cons of each treatment carefully. That can include getting a second opinion from an expert, but also from those around you.
Ways support might help
People may be tempted to rush into a treatment decision when they get a cancer diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you may also be influenced by the women you know who dealt with this disease. If someone you know “kept it quiet,” or delayed treatment, that can influence your own decisions and behaviors. Talking to family and friends may help to alleviate the flood of emotions and also help to limit some less helpful behaviors and decisions by allowing for more conversation and evaluation. Thoughtful discussions can allow for a larger investigation of all treatment options.
From the doctor’s perspective, there can be clear benefits to delivering a breast cancer diagnosis (or any serious diagnosis) with family or friends present: The patient can be overwhelmed with emotion and not think clearly as the doctor delivers initial details, so having someone there to take notes or simply be a second pair of ears can be invaluable. That person, if designated by the patient, can also be a second point of contact or back-up contact for the doctor. That person can then help the patient to navigate discussions, help to schedule a second opinion or follow-up diagnostics, help with travel arrangements and calls that need to be made, and obviously weigh in during discussions about treatment and post-treatment care.
The researchers suggest that doctors should make it a point of suggesting to the patient that they involve family and friends, specifically recommending that a family member or friend participate in the first conversation involving the delivery of the diagnosis of breast cancer. Information can then be distributed to the patient and the support person.
These individuals might also be helpful in sharing information with other family and friends of the patient, if the patient wants this.
More ways support can help
Social support during a serious illness has other benefits. Having social support has been shown to be essential for helping to maintain physical and psychological health. It may help to bolster resilience to stress. Published research that examined clinical studies found that social and emotional support from others can also be health-protective. Having support can influence individuals to make healthier choices. Given the lifestyle influences (obesity, dietary choices that increase fat levels, sedentary lifestyle) that raise the risk for breast cancer, a support team can also offer encouragement to the patient by supporting healthier lifestyle choices that can impact health during the treatment and post-treatment recovery and help lower risk of breast cancer recurrence.
It helps if the patient personally decides to bring a friend or family member to the doctor visits, but the suggestion can come from the health care professional. If the doctor recommends bringing someone to the visits, the patient may be more receptive to the idea. Though most of us value our privacy, especially when it comes to personal health issues, getting over that hump and enlisting a single person or several individuals to form a team could be a great comfort and an invaluable resource.
Take advantage of those individuals in your life whom you love and trust. During a health crisis, they can be your greatest allies.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”