Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings this agonizing disease front and center. Many of us know (and love) a woman with breast cancer; what are the best things you can do or say to help her through it?
1. Listen more than you speak.
Don’t clam up like you’ve just stepped into church, but don’t be uncomfortable with silence, either. Sometimes she simply wants to vent, without any suggestions for "fixing" things. Or she may need space and time to gather her thoughts. The end of a long silence may very well be when you hear her real feelings, fears, and worries.
Often, the very best thing you can say is, "Let’s grab a cup of coffee," or "How about seeing a movie tonight?" Normalcy is something she’s lost, and longs to get back; help her by suggesting everyday activities.
2. Ask if she’d like company for her appointment with the oncologist or surgeon.
Doctors’ appointments can be overwhelming when you have cancer. The language is new, the doctor is rushed, and you feel like you’re making life-and-death decisions with way too little information. Someone sitting next to you is a real plus: pen and notebook in hand, you can ask the doctor to slow down and explain that last point, or go over the treatment schedule one more time.
3. Help her identify Web sites where she can find reliable information around breast cancer.
There are a ton of “bad" Web sites out there, sites that look professional and seem reasonable” until you get to the part where they’re trying to sell you powdered shark cartilage to cure your cancer.
For the best, most thorough, most reliable breast cancer information and advice, stick to well-vetted sites: the Mayo Clinic, National Cancer Institute, Komen for the Cure, American Cancer Society, and similarly well-known resources - such as the one you’re on right now, HealthCentral. We offer not just solid information, but personal support via our question and answer page, manned seven days a week by caring survivors.
4. Shield her from horror stories. And when you hear them, don’t pass them on.
Why is it, when the subject of cancer comes up, there’s inevitably someone in the crowd who wants to pass along a cancer horror story? The aunt who died a slow, painful death. The friend whose chemo ended up not saving, but killing him. The cousin suffering permanent hair loss.
Cancer treatment can go wrong - dreadfully wrong. But for the most part, breast cancer treatment, while challenging, ends up saving the patient’s life without too much collateral damage. Next time you sense someone about to launch into a tale of woe, give him or her the evil eye - followed up by a quick kick to the shins if necessary.
5. Smile and relax.
Make time spent with your cancer survivor fun, not glum. As mentioned previously, there’s nothing women with cancer crave more than a return to their previous life; "business as usual." Be matter-of-fact; chat about the usual subjects (kids, partners, clothes, your boss). Acknowledge cancer if she brings it up, but otherwise, be your normal self - with an extra dose of kindness.
6. Keep reminding her (and yourself) - the great majority of women with breast cancer survive.
Some women with breast cancer die from it; but most don’t. Only those with the most dire diagnosis will pass away within the first 5 years; and the vast majority of those who get past the 5-year mark end up dying from something other than cancer.
Bottom line: breast cancer isn’t the killer it once was. These days, it’s more a bad experience you slog through, then leave in your rear-view mirror.
7. Don’t tell her to cheer up or snap out of it.
As a friend/caregiver of someone suffering through breast cancer, it’s sometimes tempting to simply tell her, "Get a life." Some women are unable to handle cancer treatment with strength and grace, and being with them can be painful and frustrating. She feels awful; you feel guilty for not being able to help.
Rather than tell her to feel better, help get her to a place where she can focus on something other than cancer, and forget her problems for awhile. Present her with a problem of your own, and ask her advice; watch a movie together; see if she feels well enough to help you pick out a new pair of shoes. Even a brief period of focus on something other than cancer can be a great relief.
8. Help her navigate her health insurance.
The last thing a woman with cancer wants to do is get sucked into the black abyss of dealing with insurance companies. You can help. Ask for a copy of her policy; take it to the hospital where she’s being treated, and ask to speak with a social worker. S/he’ll tell you how to proceed. Maybe privacy issues prevent you from doing much; on the other hand, you might be able to straighten out some issues that your friend, in her compromised state, just can’t handle.
9. Be honest and supportive about how she looks.
During the worst parts of chemo and in the days after surgery, don’t tell her she looks great - she knows she doesn’t. Instead, focus on something positive in her appearance. Look in a mirror with her and point out how beautiful the shape of her head is, now that there’s no hair hiding it. Tell her you love the new scarf she’s wearing around her shoulders. Admire the courage and strength shining from her eyes.
10. Tell her she’s not going to die.
All women with breast cancer believe, at some point, that they’re going to die from the disease. Most do, in fact, survive. Yet that worry is an insidious thread that stretches throughout treatment and beyond. How can you help?
Unless your friend is in the terminal stages of cancer, tell her this, and mean it: "You’re not going to die." You don’t know that for sure; no one does. But chances are it’s true, so go ahead: say it.
And repeat as often as necessary. Back it up with the numbers: over 90% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer live for at least 5 years - and most never die of the disease.
Johnson, P. (2014, October 1). Breast Cancer Awareness: Understand the Numbers. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/c/9692/172014/awareness-understand
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.