- Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer
- Voice of Experience: How to Support a Friend with Breast Cancer
- What to Do When Your Friend Has Breast Cancer
- 1. Be Normal.
- 2. Be Proactive.
- 3. Don’t Put Pressure on Her.
- 4. Don’t Try to “Fix” Things.
- 5. Make Her Feel Special.
- How to Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer
- Friendship and cancer
- What you can do: Notes and calls
- What you can do: Visits
- What you can do: Conversation
- What you can do: Errands and projects
- What you can do: How to offer support
- What you can do: Gifts
- Ten Ways to Support Someone Who Has Breast Cancer
- Helping someone you love through this scary time
- What a Friend Can Do
- Just Be There
- What to Say
- Instead of Calling, Write
- What About Visitors?
- Offer Practical Help
- Make a Date
- More Acts of Kindness
- 7 Tips for Supporting a Friend or Loved One with Cancer
Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer
Do you have a friend or colleague who has been diagnosed with breast cancer? Are you unsure how this may affect your relationship or what kind of support you can offer?
To help you, we have compiled this page of useful tips and strategies from women who have experienced breast cancer. Of course, not every individual wants the same type of support. Wherever possible, try to take your lead from your friend. Listen for cues and don’t be afraid to ask what they need or to make a suggestion.
Offering your friend or colleague emotional help during their breast cancer journey can be very powerful. Simply taking the time to check in with them and ask how they are getting on can be rewarding for the both of you. Here are a few tips in case you’re not sure where to start.
- Be available to listen. Let your friend know that you’re available to come over when needed. Cry, laugh and listen to her. Sometimes there is no need for words.
- Let her know if you don’t mind taking a call from her in the middle of the night. Often women with breast cancer lie awake at night worrying. Having someone on the other end of the phone can be very comforting.
- Just be yourself. You don’t need to worry about not knowing what to say.
- Let her know you care. Many people find it difficult to ask for help. Cooking a homemade meal or offering to do the grocery shopping can go a long way.
- Phone her, but be respectful of her needs. Try to remember that at times even talking may be tiring. Try not to call at meal times or too early or late in the day. You might even want to ask her if she is being inundated with calls from other people, and when a good time to call might be.
- Visit, but phone first to check it’s okay. Don’t visit with sick or noisy children, or if you’re sick yourself.
For many women with breast cancer, receiving practical help with things such as meals, shopping and housework can be enormously helpful. Here are a few ideas of what you might be able to do to help your friend or colleague:
- Prepare home-cooked meals, soups, biscuits and cakes that can be frozen and used when needed.
- Help with housework, gardening or looking after pets. If your friend has had surgery, she will find it difficult to hang out washing, vacuum or iron for several weeks after surgery. Why not offer to pop by and help her out?
- Take her shopping and carry packages, or take a list and do it for her.
- Offer to drive her to medical treatments or appointments. You might even be able to work out a roster of family and friends to cover each visit.
- Ask what else she would like you to do and listen for clues.
Things that won’t help:
It’s normal to not know what to say to a friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. While just being you and giving her your time can be greatly beneficial, there are some things that probably won’t help:
- Don’t tell her about the latest cure or treatment you’ve heard about.
- Don’t burden her with your fears or worries.
- Don’t tell her horror stories about other people with cancer.
- Don’t give up on her or stop ringing or visiting.
- Don’t tell her how she should be changing her lifestyle or diet. It may be hard enough for her to get out of bed in the morning.
- Don’t tell her to ‘be positive’. That may make it hard for her to talk to you about how she really feels.
Special considerations for the workplace
Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment affects everyone differently. How your colleague is dealing with their diagnosis is a personal thing, although she is probably experiencing physical andemotional distress on some level.
The best way to help your colleague will depend on the type of work she does, the kind of treatment she is undertaking and whether or not she needs or wants to work.
Some women return to work as quickly as possible because they crave the normality and companionship that work offers. Others need time away from work to deal with breast cancer and its treatment. If you’re not sure what will help your colleague, you may find the following suggestions useful:
- If you’re her manager, ask her whether she wants others to know about her diagnosis and whether she’d like you to break the news for her. Establish sick leave entitlements and discuss other financial options if possible and appropriate. Be flexible with time off for doctor’s appointments, tests and treatment.
- Before she returns to work, discuss any limitations that may apply. Be aware that how she feels may change from day-to-day or week-to-week. Arrange for someone to help out if the workload gets to be too much.
- If you’re a colleague, treat her normally but let her know you understand that she may be working in challenging circumstances. Don’t be afraid to ask how she’s feeling and give her the opportunity to talk if she wants to.
- Remember to ask her to social functions even if she’s not at work. She may not be able to attend but will still feel part of the team.
- Avoiding her
- Making assumptions about what she can and can’t do
- Asking inappropriate questions like: ‘Were you a smoker?’ or, ‘Is it in your family?’
If you would like further information on helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer, you might like to consider the following resources:
- Our Caring for someone with early breast cancer page has more information for friends and colleagues.
- Download or order a copy of the Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer brochure.
- The work and breast cancer section on our website has more information of employers and colleagues.
- Have a look at the stories of personal support from family, friends and colleagues which you can find on this website. These stories are told by women who have experienced breast cancer.
Voice of Experience: How to Support a Friend with Breast Cancer
In 1988, when I was just 34 years old, I received an unexpected and frightening diagnosis of breast cancer. At that time, the standard age for a screening mammogram was 40. Because of my history of cystic breasts, my doctor, fortunately, advised getting one earlier.
I was unprepared and shocked that they found something. My relative youth had infused me with a mistaken sense of security when it came to my health. And I knew little to nothing about breast cancer.
In short order, I had to learn a whole new language that revolved around medical jargon and procedures. I also had to learn a whole new way to cope emotionally, and communicate about something unfamiliar and alien. So did the people around me.
My friends, mostly women who were also young and blissfully ignorant of serious disease, were also shocked and unprepared. They were threatened by a disease that frightened their own sense of security. After all, if I could get breast cancer, they could, too.
Some friends rallied with phone calls, cards, and company. Others avoided me. Many, I realized, did so because they didn’t know what to say, or feared saying the wrong things. Almost 29 years later, I can say it’s hard — but not impossible — to say and do things that help. Here’s my advice.
A gesture can be good enough. Sometimes there are no words, and a small act of kindness conveys more. Just being present is often enough. For me, a visit from a former boss on the day I returned from my surgery was comforting and reassuring. He pulled up a chair next to my bed, reached out and held my hand. For hours. That’s it. A donation to a cancer research organization (in their name), a card or email, are also all appropriate — and appreciated — gestures.
Words don’t have to be deep. Simple words may say it all. In fact, it’s entirely possible to relay your interest and concern without getting philosophical. Some suggestions: I’m not sure what to say; I want you to know I really care; I’m here for you any time you want to talk.
Treating the person — and conversation — as normal is welcome. I had an acquaintance who would always greet me with, “And how are you feeling?” My stock answer was: “Just fine, thank you.” My inner response was to flinch. When you’re going through cancer, you’re inundated with medical talk, medical tests, and doctor’s visits. Remember to ask the person about her life outside of breast cancer: her family, her job, what book she’s reading. There is a life outside of this diagnosis, and an opportunity to live it and talk about it helps keep that in perspective.
It’s okay to acknowledge the fear. Breast cancer is scary. Saying, “You must be scared” is true and raw and real. Discuss the diagnosis with her (if that’s what she wants). You’ll know if she wants to take it any further by simply listening and following her lead.
Offer specific help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” sounds helpful, but really, it puts the onus on the other person to figure it out. Instead, suggest something concrete like, “I’m going to the grocery store; what can I get you?” or “When’s your next check-up? I’m available as a chauffeur/note taker/advocate.”
When you do not know what to say, just listen. Breast cancer means making a lot of important decisions, and many times the person just wants someone to listen and hear her out, and acknowledge the situation in a nonjudgmental way. Sometimes your friend might even not want to talk, but will be happy to know you’re there.
Whatever you do, know that it matters. A study published in February 2012 in Psychooncology demonstrated the importance of strong supportive social networks for women with breast cancer, and even pointed to their power to increase survival for these women. Research also shows that women with the most social ties were less likely to suffer recurrences of their cancer and less likely to die from it than women who were socially isolated.
“Just knowing that they have a friend who can listen when they need it is very comforting to the person, and can make them feel less alone during this difficult time in their life,” says Mamta Kalidas, MD, a retired oncologist who is a volunteer faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine in Waco, Texas.
What to Do When Your Friend Has Breast Cancer
Heather Lagemann started writing her blog, Invasive Duct Tales, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. It was named one of our Best Breast Cancer Blogs of 2015. Read on to learn how her family and friends helped her through breast cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32, I was nursing an infant, doing preschool runs, and binge watching “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. I really didn’t have much previous experience with cancer and it was basically, like, a horrible disease that people died from in the movies. I saw “A Walk to Remember” as a teenager. Tragic…and it was also basically the closest I had come to real life cancer.
It was the same for many of my friends and family, and with each new hurdle I faced — the initial shock, surgery, chemotherapy, bad days, worse days, bald days, menopausal-at-32 days — I saw the struggle come over them. They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what to do.
Most of the people in my life rocked it, naturally, because really, all a cancer girl wants is for her people to be there. But, still, there were others who could have used a little guidance. And that’s okay, because it’s really not a normal situation. I get weird if there’s an unclaimed fart hanging around so I don’t expect you to know how to handle my cancer.
With that said, in all my cancer patient expertise (an expertise that no one really wants), I have come up with five ways to be a friend to someone with cancer.
1. Be Normal.
This seems like common sense, but it has to be said. I didn’t want people to look at me differently, and I certainly didn’t want people to treat me differently. I was diagnosed just before Easter, and I told my family that the only way I was going to show up to Easter lunch was if they could act normal. So they did, and the precedent was set. This didn’t mean that they ignored the fact that I had cancer; that wouldn’t be normal. So we talked about it, got worried about it, made jokes about it, and then rifled through our kids’ Easter baskets when they weren’t looking.
So if you normally have a girls’ night out once a month, keep inviting your friend. She may not be able to go, but it’s nice to feel normal. Take her to a movie. Ask her how she is, and give her free reign to vent (like you would have at 15, when her boyfriend dumped her, although the situation couldn’t be more different). Truly listen, and then give her the latest happenings, ask her advice on nail polish colors, and talk to her about the things that you normally would. It’s nice to feel normal via your friends in an otherwise foreign situation.
2. Be Proactive.
Instead, think of things you know she’ll need help with, and get on it. In the midst of chemotherapy, I had an acquaintance just show up and mow my lawn. She didn’t text me or even knock on my door. She just did it. I didn’t have to have the awkward conversation of doling out my chores to a friend — which always just turned into, “I’m fine. We’re okay. Thanks, though!” — and there was no place for my pride to get in the way. It was just done. It was amazing. Since your friend won’t call you and tell you what they need help with, I will:
- Getting food on the table. Coordinating meals is a great help. There are websites like mealtrain.com that make it so easy, and I can’t tell you how much stress it took away knowing that my family would be fed when I didn’t have the energy to do it. Also, if you’re at a grocery store near her, shoot her a text to see if she’s out of milk or goldfish crackers and pick them up for her.
- Childcare. This may vary, but for me, I couldn’t pick up my own baby for three weeks after surgery. And keeping up with a 3-year-old during chemo? No. One of my best friends gathered the troops and put together a childcare calendar that fit my needs, and I am forever grateful. Your friend will jump for joy (or smile at you from the couch) if you offer to take her kids to the zoo for the day or even to the park for an hour.
- Cleaning. She ain’t got time or energy for that right now! My house was never as disgusting as it was when I was in active treatment, and funnily enough, I have never had more visitors. A close friend or group of girlfriends can pitch in and either do it themselves or hire a service.
- Lawn care. In my house, my husband usually takes care of this (I tell him I’m too pretty to mow or take out the trash, and it works — even bald). However, my husband had a lot on his plate too, so this was really helpful in not letting our yard turn into a jungle.
3. Don’t Put Pressure on Her.
There’s a lot going on right now: appointments, scans, medications, lots of feelings and fear, probably a chemotherapy-induced menopause, trying to guide her family through this while not really knowing how. So if she doesn’t text back, or ignores your calls for a little while, let it slide and keep on trying. She’s probably overwhelmed but is reading your texts and listening to your voicemails and really appreciates them. If you gift her a book, for example (a nice thing to do, since there’s so much downtime at chemo), don’t expect her to read it. I remember feeling so bad when a friend asked me multiple times about a book she gifted me that I hadn’t read. Basically, just cut her lots of slack and don’t expect much (or really anything) from her right now.
4. Don’t Try to “Fix” Things.
It’s a hard thing to do, sitting in someone’s pain with them, but that’s what she needs from you right now. It’s your natural instinct to want to make her feel better by saying things like, “You’ll be okay,” or “You’re so strong! You will beat this!” or “You’re only given what you can handle,” or “Just keep a positive attitude.” (I could go on for days.) Saying those things might make you feel better, but they won’t make her feel better, because you don’t really know that she’ll be okay. She is strong, but she doesn’t really have a say in how this will turn out. She doesn’t want to feel like it’s up to her to “beat” this. What she wants is for someone to sit with her in this uncertainty because it’s scary…and yes, it’s uncomfortable.
My niece is one of the only people who talked with me about the possibility of my death, and she was 7. No one else was willing to look death in the eye with me, but it was on my mind daily. I’m not saying you need to have in-depth death talks, but be open to your friend’s feelings. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say as long as you are willing to truly listen. And trust me, she knows this is hard for you too, and she will appreciate your willingness to “sit in it” with her.
5. Make Her Feel Special.
I know your friend genuinely is special to you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But there is a big difference between loving someone and letting them know that you love them. My favorite part of cancer — yes, I have a favorite part of cancer! — was that it seemed to give people a free pass to tell me how they felt about me, and it was amazing. I got so, so many cards, letters, and messages full of kind words, forgotten memories, palpable encouragement, and just raw love. They served to lift me up on some of my worst days, and it actually changed my view of the world we live in.
Cancer can be incredibly lonely, so every little gift, card in the mail, and meal dropped off let me know I was still a part of the world at large. Besides, why should more attention be placed on you during your wedding year than your (hopefully, only) cancer year? I say: When someone has cancer, that is when we should go balls-to-the-wall making them feel special. They need it, and honestly, it meant more during my cancer year than my wedding year.
As long as you approach your friend with love, you will be just fine. And while you may not be able to do everything in this article, just promise me you’ll dropkick anyone who tries to tell her stories about the grandmother, sister, or neighbor they had who died of breast cancer, okay?
How to Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer
Friendship and cancer
Today, most people with cancer are treated in the outpatient setting – they don’t have to stay in the hospital. During this time they often need help, support, and encouragement.
Many studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life. Research has shown that people with cancer need support from friends. You can make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer.
Friends of people with cancer often want to help, but don’t know what to do.
As you spend time with your friend and learn more about how cancer is affecting their everyday life, keep your eyes open for other things you can offer. See how your friend responds to different activities, and know that the situation may change as treatment goes on. Tailoring your help to what they need and enjoy most is the best way to be a friend. Here we will give you some ideas about where to start.
What you can do: Notes and calls
Make sure your friend knows that they’re important to you. Show that you still care for your friend despite changes in what they can do or how they look.
- Send brief, frequent notes or texts, or make short, regular calls. Include photos, kids’ drawings, silly cards, and cartoons.
- Ask questions.
- End the call or note with “I’ll be in touch soon,” and follow through.
- Call at times that work best for your friend or set times for them to call you.
- Return their messages right away.
- Check in with the person who helps with their daily care (caregiver) to see what else they might need.
What you can do: Visits
Cancer can be very isolating. Try to spend time with your friend – you may be a welcome distraction and help them feel like they did before cancer became a major focus of their life.
- Always call before you visit. Be understanding if your friend can’t see you at that time.
- Schedule a visit that allows you to give physical and emotional support for the caregiver, too. Maybe you can arrange to stay with your friend while the caregiver gets out of the house for a couple of hours.
- Make short, regular visits rather than long, infrequent ones. Understand that your friend might not want to talk, but they may not like being alone either.
- Begin and end the visit with a touch, a hug, or a handshake.
- Be understanding if the family asks you to leave.
- Always refer to your next visit so your friend can look forward to it.
- Offer to bring a snack or treat to share so your visit doesn’t impose on the caregiver.
- Try to visit at times other than weekends or holidays, when others may visit. Time can seem the same to a house-bound patient. A Tuesday morning can be just as lonely as a Saturday night.
- Take your own needlework, crossword puzzle, or book, and keep your friend company while they doze or watch TV.
- Share music they enjoy, watch their favorite TV show, or watch a movie with your friend.
- Read sections of a book or newspaper, or find topics of interest online and summarize them for your friend.
- Offer to take a short walk with your friend if they are up to it.
Don’t be afraid to touch, hug, or shake hands with your friend.
What you can do: Conversation
Many people worry that they don’t know what to say to someone with cancer. Try to remember that the most important thing is not what you say – it’s that you’re there and willing to listen. Try to hear and understand how your friend feels. Let them know that you’re open to talking whenever they feel like it. Or, if the person doesn’t feel like talking, let them know that’s OK, too.
- Gear the conversation to your friend’s attention span so they don’t feel overwhelmed or guilty about not being able to talk.
- Help your friend focus on whatever brings out good feelings, such as sports, religion, travel, or pets.
- Help your friend keep an active role in the friendship by asking advice, opinions, and questions – even if you don’t get the response you expect.
- Ask your friend if they’re having any discomfort. Suggest new ways to be more comfortable, such as using more pillows or moving the furniture.
- Give honest compliments, such as “You look rested today.”
- Support your friend’s feelings. Allow them to be negative, withdrawn, or silent. Resist the urge to change the subject.
- Don’t urge your friend to fight the disease if they feel it’s too hard to do it.
- Don’t tell them how strong they are; they may feel the need to act strong even when they’re sad or exhausted.
- Be sure to include your friend when talking to others in the room.
- Assume that your friend can hear you even if they seem to be asleep or dazed.
- Don’t offer medical advice or your opinions on things like diet, vitamins, and herbal therapies.
- Don’t remind them of past behaviors that might be related to the illness, such as drinking or smoking. Some people feel guilty over those things.
Ask your friend questions. Ask for their advice and opinions.
What you can do: Errands and projects
Many people want to help friends facing a difficult time. Keep in mind that wanting to help and offering to be there for your friend is what matters most.
- Take care of any urgent errands your friend or the caregiver needs right away.
- Run an errand for the caregiver; it’s as helpful as an errand for your friend.
- Your friend may appreciate it more if you take care of frequent, scheduled errands, rather than fewer ones that take a lot of time.
- Look for ways to help on a regular basis.
- Plan projects in advance and start them only after talking with the caregiver.
- Get a list of tasks. Organize friends, neighbors, and co-workers to help complete the tasks on a regular, weekly basis. There are special websites that can help with this.
- Make lunch for your friend and their caregiver one day a week. If your friend is getting chemo, ask what they feel like eating.
- Clean your friend’s home for an hour every Saturday.
- Care for your friend’s lawn or garden twice a month.
- Baby-sit, pet-sit, or take care of your friend’s plants.
- Commit to taking their child to soccer practice or music lessons twice a week.
- Return or pick up library books, movies, or books on CD.
- Buy groceries.
- Go to the post office.
- Pick up prescriptions.
- Help make to-do lists.
- Drive family or friends to and from the airport or hotel.
What you can do: How to offer support
Some people find it hard to accept support – even when they need it. Don’t be surprised or hurt if your friend refuses help. It’s not you. It’s more about pride and their need for independence.
- Provide emotional support through your presence and your touch.
- Help the caregiver. In doing so, you’ll help your friend. Many people are afraid of being a burden to their loved ones.
- Offer practical ideas on what you can do to help, and then follow through.
- Assume your help is needed, even if family, friends, or hired help is also helping out.
What you can do: Gifts
Look for small, practical things your friend may need or just enjoy. Think about what their average day is like and what might make it a little better. It’s always good to laugh and smile, too, so look for fun things for your friend.
- Make sure gifts are useful right away. Small gifts given frequently are usually better than large, one-time gifts.
- Give a gift to the caregiver; it’s as welcome as a gift to your friend.
- Insist that a thank-you note is not needed.
- Soft or silly socks
- Fun hats or scarves
- Bright, soft washcloths, towels, or sheets
- Silk or satin pillowcases
- Pajamas or a robe
- Unusual toiletries, such as soap and lotion
- Stamped postcards
- Favorite or unusual foods or snacks
- Self-care items, such as a cancer resource book, a special pillow, or a heating pad
- A massage device
- A small cordless phone
- Pictures of friends
- A CD or download of your friend’s favorite soothing music or nature sounds
- Funny movies
- Audio books
- Journal or notebook
Everyone, no matter how strong, can benefit from having a friend. Your friend with cancer needs you and your support.
For cancer information, day-to-day help, and emotional support, visit www.cancer.org or call 1-800-227-2345. We’re there when you need us – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Ten Ways to Support Someone Who Has Breast Cancer
Helping someone you love through this scary time
In 2001 Marsha Silver was buttoning up her blouse after a repeat mammogram when the radiologist walked in and announced, “Sure looks like breast cancer to me.” Stunned, Marsha (who was 53 at the time) left the office and immediately called her husband Marc at work. After asking a few questions, he said, “Okay, honey. See you tonight,” and hung up the phone. Marsha later told him she thought she’d called the wrong husband.
“She thought I wasn’t going to be any help and that I would not be able to be there the way she needed me,” says Marc, remembering his early missteps as a caregiver. “That first weekend, I didn’t know what to do because she looked so stunned and sad. I had no frame of reference for how to be a caregiver and support someone with a cancer diagnosis. I thought I should cheer her up, so I took her to a big festival. She walked around like a zombie. She looked so bereft and lost. Whatever I was doing was not the right thing.”
The Tuesday after receiving that shocking news, Marc and Marsha met with a surgeon to discuss her options. During that appointment, Marc realized he couldn’t run away from the situation. He had to face it head on.
“Realizing that it’s very important to be there for a family member or friend facing any medical crisis helped me adjust my behavior,” says Marc. “I still didn’t know what to do. It was very confusing and overwhelming, but I began to understand what my role was,” says Marc, a journalist who went on to author Breast Cancer Husband: How To Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond in 2004.
Marc is one of countless people in this country supporting a friend or family member with breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s estimated that 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. (Though extremely rare, breast cancer occurs in men as well. The ACS estimates that 2,470 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 460 men will die from breast cancer in 2017.)
The good news is that breast cancer mortality rates in women have dropped to 2.7 percent – that’s a decrease of 39 percent, from 33.2 annual deaths per 100,000 women in 1989 to 20.3 annual deaths per 100,000 women in 2015. There are currently more than 1.3 million breast cancer survivors. If someone you love is one of them, here are ten ways you can support her.
Ask what is most helpful
“It’s impossible to know what a survivor needs without actually asking,” says Allison J. Applebaum, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping cancer patients and their caregivers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Maybe they want to be accompanied to treatment appointments, but perhaps they don’t.”
When Amy Schreibman Walter, 41, was diagnosed in July of 2017, she didn’t know what she might need, so she didn’t ask for anything. “But one of my best friends basically cornered me and said, ‘Look, people want to help you! Let them help. If you don’t tell us what will help you, we’ll have to guess.’ So together we came up with the idea for supermarket vouchers, which I used to buy healthy, prepared food. It was such a pleasure to come home after radiotherapy appointments each evening and have fresh, healthy food waiting for me.”
Face fear (yours and theirs)
“Breast cancer survivors tend to have high levels of depression and anxiety,” says Rachel Cannady, strategic director of cancer caregiver support at the American Cancer Society. “Even after treatment has ended, anxiety turns into fear of recurrence, and we’ve found that it’s higher than with other types of cancer.”
So when it comes to offering support to those with breast cancer, Cannady’s first piece of advice is to find ways to broach the subject of fear and be open to hearing the patient’s concerns. Don’t be afraid to talk about the cancer. Let them know you are a safe person for them to discuss their fears and concerns.
“Make them aware that it’s ok to be scared and that you are there to help support them,” says Cannady. At the same time, she says not to share stories of other peoples’ bad experiences with cancer.
Looking back on the weekend his wife got her diagnosis, Marc Silver says he learned you can’t talk someone out of their feelings. “If someone is really feeling scared or upset, you don’t say, ‘Let’s go see a funny movie’ because that may not be what they need. That first weekend, I could have said, ‘What will help you get though this? Do you want to stay home or go out? What do you want?’ That’s hard for people to do because everyone thinks they know best,” says Marc.
Applebaum says it’s important to acknowledge out loud that even after treatment has ended, the fears have not gone away – for the survivor or the caregiver.
Serve the survivor
“You have to face the fact that you can’t fix it, but that doesn’t mean you are useless,” says Marc. “The person with breast cancer is in charge, and she has to pick the doctors and treatments that are right for her. I jokingly say that the breast cancer husband’s motto is ‘shut up and listen.’ But you really do have to listen and find out what the patient needs from you. That’s the critical role that any caregiver can play.”
Be good company
Jackie Froeber, 35, was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in May 2016, and she recommends asking your loved one if she would like you to accompany her to doctor’s appointments and treatments. “It’s scary,” she says, “For some women, a friend offering to go and take down notes so the patient can just sit there and listen would be an amazing thing.”
“It’s really nice to have someone volunteer to go with you and play Uno or bring a tablet and watch a movie. Maybe you want to do chemo on your own, but it’s nice when someone makes a plan,” says Froeber.
Walter initially wanted to go alone to radiology appointments, but sitting there in the waiting room every day for three weeks began to feel monotonous. When she mentioned this to her friends, they started coming along with her, which made the appointments more bearable. “I wasn’t alone for my radiotherapy appointments after that. I didn’t how nice the support would be,” says Walter.
Be a designated driver
Froeber preferred going to appointments on her own, but there were some things she couldn’t do by herself, such as drive home from the hospital after surgery. “Somebody has to take care of you, and it can be a very stressful time,” says Froeber. “To have somebody in your life that can take the day off from work and make sure you have a safe ride home is amazing,” says Froeber, who had a double mastectomy in January.
Think before you speak
Even people who mean well can say insensitive or inappropriate things. “You don’t want the person going through cancer to be focusing their energy on how you feel,” says Froeber. “If you are starting a sentence with, ‘I know I should have…’ then reconsider what you’re about to say. People that didn’t reach out, and then come back with an apology put the onus on the survivor to forgive the other person. If you didn’t know how you felt about it that’s ok, so maybe just take yourself out of it and think about the survivor,” Froeber says.
Prepare for a caregiving marathon, not a sprint
“Something that helped both of us was breaking down this marathon into smaller obstacles,” says Tom Korzon, Froeber’s longtime boyfriend. “Looking at the entire process from start to finish was extremely daunting and overwhelming. However, by mapping out each obstacle (surgery, chemo, radiation, etc.) it became a much more achievable, goal-oriented way of looking at things.”
Check out this important guide to taking care of yourself as a caregiver.
Bring joy and laughter
Although it’s important to provide a safe place to discuss fears, Cannady says that cancer shouldn’t dominate every conversation. “Don’t neglect the things that make the survivor happy. If gardening brings her pleasure, but she doesn’t feel good enough, do everything to support that behavior,” Cannady says. “If she loves going to the movies or symphony but can’t sit that long, bring pillows so she can enjoy it a little bit longer.”
“As a caregiver, make sure you help the survivor accomplish things they really desire,” Cannady says.
Silver credits laughter with helping him and his wife get through her treatment. “When friends asked what they could send us, I would tell them to send us anything that’s funny,” he says.
Keep up the support after treatment
“Just because a patient is in survivorship mode, doesn’t mean they no longer have anxiety or can go back to the world before,” Applebaum says. “Sometimes it’s a more difficult period because it presents its own unique challenges. There are many emotions that don’t get expressed during active treatment that come out during survivorship. Ask questions like, ‘How are you doing? What do you need right now? Should I be doing what I did before, or do you need something different? How can I best support you right now?'”
Remember that small gestures are important too
“I reassured Jackie that I was there for her every step of the way,” says Korzon. “Just little gestures like leaving her notes or making sure she had flowers after every surgery or milestone let her know that I was always thinking about her.”
“If someone takes time out of their day to choose a card and mail it to me, it never gets old,” Froeber says. “You know someone is thinking of you.”
Caregiver resources from the American Cancer Society:
Caregivers and Family
Caregiver Resource Guide
What a Friend Can Do
Your coworker and friend was recently diagnosed with cancer, and you want to do something to show you care. Here, several cancer survivors offer insight into the acts of kindness your friend may most appreciate.
Just Be There
“When I was first diagnosed, the thing that my friends did that was most helpful was to hold me while I cried,” says Kay Wells, who developed breast cancer three years ago. “If you want to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, just be there. Sit there. Don’t offer platitudes. Just hold your friend’s hand and let them talk when they need to. They need to talk about what’s happened.” According to Wells, “Friends can’t make the fact that you have cancer go away. They can’t make it all better. They can, however, help you feel safer. When you’re scared, it’s important to know that someone is there.”
What to Say
It’s also important to know you can speak candidly about your illness, says Dr. Robin Stone, a seven-year survivor of ovarian cancer. “I had friends who were able to tolerate my discussion about my illness and I appreciated the opportunity to speak frankly and in some detail about the disease and its complexity. The last thing you want from people is some syrupy sweet comment like ‘Everything will be fine.’”
Anita Carton, an 11-year survivor of ovarian cancer, appreciated the support her friends provided but cautioned against offering platitudes or false assurances. “Don’t say ‘Everything will be okay.’ You can’t guarantee that,” she says. “And don’t say ‘I know what you’re going through’ unless you really do. If you haven’t had cancer yourself, it would be better to say ‘I know you’re having a difficult time.’”
Another tip: When you’re visiting, don’t feel compelled to make your friend’s illness the primary topic of conversation.
“Friends helped by talking about subjects other than cancer,” says Claudia Chatman, a 12-year breast cancer survivor. “We talked about old times, about travel plans we had coming up. It helped to focus on things other than my illness.”
“Don’t hesitate to talk about office happenings and gossip,” urged Carton. “It provides a great distraction from one’s own illness. And frankly, one of the best defenses you have when you’re ill is distraction.”
Instead of Calling, Write
If your friend is in the hospital or at home recovering from surgery, it’s important to write, says Lynda Ford, a 10-year survivor of breast cancer. “While the person with cancer is often too tired to talk on the telephone, cards, letters and e-mails are a great way to stay connected, and often are reread with a warm smile.”
“One of the best things people can do is send cards,” echoes Carton. “When I was in the hospital, the one thing I loved and encouraged people to do was send cards. I called them ‘silent messengers.’ What people don’t realize is that phone calls can be intrusive when you’re in the hospital. There may be a procedure going on. You may be taking a nap. Plus, talking on the telephone takes more energy than people realize. Cards, on the other hand, are perfect. You don’t have to exert energy to react to them. You can read them when it’s most convenient and when you’re rested.”
What About Visitors?
Carton recommends that coworkers rotate their visits to the hospital. “The need to know and be assured about how your coworker is feeling has to be weighed against the patient’s need to rest,” she says. “The coworker who’s ill may not have the energy to tell her story to everyone who calls or visits. I remember when I was in the hospital, I loved the attention from everyone, but I had to minimize the energy I gave back.”
Offer Practical Help
Once your friend is home recuperating, offering practical help can often be the kindest thing you can do, according to Stone. “Cook a meal or some hot soup and bring it over. Offer to do the marketing or to drive your friend to a doctor’s appointment,” she suggests. “Offering practical help is invaluable, especially if your friend is single or doesn’t have family members nearby to help out.”
Following radiation treatments for a recent recurrence of her breast cancer, Chatman says she was often too tired to cook for herself or even to walk from the kitchen table to the refrigerator. “It was really helpful when friends came over to cook a meal or help with household chores,” she remembers. “I also appreciated when friends made calls to schedule my doctors’ appointments or offered to take me to my appointments.”
Ford recommends being proactive when you want to help. “Don’t ask, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I help?’ Just do something,” she urges. “One night following my mastectomy, two friends just brought over dinner — pasta, salad and dessert. They didn’t ask if I needed it. They just did it. It was a meal that could be used immediately or the next day.”
Make a Date
Don’t hesitate to invite your friend on an outing either. “If the person feels well enough to get out of the house, ask if they’d like to join you and some other friends from work for lunch,” suggests Carton. “Even if the person with cancer doesn’t have much of an appetite that day, sitting with everyone, talking and laughing, and getting back to a more normal environment can be very therapeutic.”
Gift certificates for little luxuries can also be therapeutic, says Ford. “Depending on the person, you can give gift certificates for a massage, dinner out, a hair appointment or something similar,” she recommends. “Then the person with cancer can use the certificate when they’re having a good day.”
Another luxury of sorts might be an afternoon of ‘R&R’ for an ill friend who has small children. “If there are small — or even not-so-small — ones at home, offer to take them out for the day,” suggests Ford. “It will give the person with cancer some quiet time and the kids can have a fun day too.”
More Acts of Kindness
- Consider sending balloon bouquets rather than flowers. “Some people may be allergic to flowers,” notes Carton. “Besides, balloons are great. They can really cheer up a hospital room or bedroom.”
- Help with the basics. “If your friend is home and you’ll be in the vicinity, call and see if you can pick anything up,” suggests Ford. “A half-gallon of milk or loaf of bread is no big deal — until you run out!”
- Don’t visit your friend if you’re ill or feel as if you’re coming down with something. “Whether your friend is in the hospital or convalescing at home, if you have the slightest cough or cold, stay away,” reminds Carton. “A cancer patient’s immune system is already compromised, particularly if they’re on chemo. Even if you planned to visit on a particular day, call and let your friend know you think it’s best to postpone your visit because you’re not feeling well. The cancer patient will appreciate the call.”
- Donate your unused leave time. If your friend has used up all of his or her paid leave due to illness, consider donating some of yours. According to Ford, who heads her own HR consulting firm, “Some companies have ‘catastrophic’ leave banks, where employees can donate unused vacation time for colleagues who have catastrophic leave needs.”
- If you want to make a gesture of support consider growing, cutting and donating your hair to make free, real-hair wigs for people with cancer.
It can be scary to learn that someone you care about has breast cancer. You might feel sad or worried and wonder how you can help her (or him) get through it.
With the right steps, you can make things easier for your loved one and yourself after her diagnosis and during treatment. Here are some tips for family and friends of someone with breast cancer:
- Write your questions down so you don’t forget them. If it’s OK with your loved one, you can go with her to an appointment and ask the doctor about them. You may want to let other people know what you’re going to ask before you go.
- Be prepared for changes in your loved one’s behavior and mood. Medications, side effects from treatment, and stress may make her feel depressed, angry, or tired.
- Encourage her to be active and to do as much for herself as possible. It will help her feel a sense of control.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Be sure you get enough sleep, eat well, and take some time off for yourself. If you stay well, it will be easier to help your loved one.
- Ask other family members and friends to pitch in, too. They can bring meals, take the dog for a walk, or offer rides to doctor’s appointments. Most people will appreciate the chance to help.
A loved one’s illness can be stressful for you, too. To keep your worries from taking over:
- Try to keep a positive attitude.
- Accept that there are events you cannot control.
- Find some activities that help you relax. Take a walk, listen to music, or practice meditation or yoga.
- Exercise regularly. It’s a great way to fight tension, and it can help your body be better prepared to deal with stress.
- Rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events. Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce stress.
- Think about joining a support group for family and friends of people with breast cancer. It might help to talk about what you’re going through with other people who understand what it’s like.
7 Tips for Supporting a Friend or Loved One with Cancer
Aug 15, 2019 · 4 min read
By Liz Hagag
As a cancer survivor, I thought I would know exactly how to support my mom when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I was in shock. I felt paralyzed and everything I learned about cancer care went down the drain. Luckily, I remembered that it takes a village to overcome cancer and I was not alone.
I reached out to 50+ survivors and caregivers to get their advice on how to best support a friend or loved one with cancer. Although each individual shared a unique experience, seven helpful tips stood out.
1. Be Present. Your loved one needs all the support he or she can get — whether it’s virtual or in-person; however, depending on the state of his or her immune system, being there in-person may not be an option. Sending cards, text messages, making phone calls, etc. can be a great way let your loved one know you’re rooting for them. Keep in mind he or she is going through a lot of change and may not feel up to responding right away.
“Put a note in your calendar to check on the person each week — even up to a year after treatment ends because the battle isn’t over, but all the support will be gone.” -Sara, Survivor
2) It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. You may be afraid to reach out because you don’t know what to say, but don’t let that stop you. Be honest with your loved one — if you don’t know what to say, tell them. Allow some time and space for your loved one to lead the conversation and listen intently.
“It was helpful when someone came to see me and just be with me. If I felt like talking, we’d talk. If I needed someone to be with me, no questions or comments, that was okay too.” -Lisa, Survivor
3) Schedule visits. Showing up for your loved one is important, but keep in mind that he or she may not be up for a visit or a phone call. When you schedule a visit, check in before to make sure he or she is still feeling up to it.
“ People coming unannounced really made me uncomfortable. Just showing up. I’m introverted so I don’t know if it was just me or anyone else that felt that way.” -Alonzo, Survivor
4) Understand that every diagnosis is different. Try to avoid comparing your loved one’s diagnosis to your Great Aunt Mary’s fight against breast cancer. Comparing cancer experiences may come off as dismissive. Instead, ask your loved one if he or she would like an introduction to your Great Aunt Mary so they can exchange tips and support.
“An unhelpful comment was ‘you’re going to be fine.’ Not only did the person not know whether or not I would, it felt like my right to be scared was being minimized.” — Karen, Survivor.
5) Help with day-to-day tasks. You can help out by picking up his or her kids from school, chipping in to hire a monthly cleaning service, creating a rotating meal schedule with friends, etc. Small acts of kindness can go a long way.
“ Don’t ask what the person /family needs because 9 times out of 10, they’ll say nothing. Cut the lawn, clean the house, make the meal. A parent just started organizing meals and gave us a calendar. Reach out to the persons inner circle if you don’t feel comfortable stepping in.” -Tina, Caregiver
6) Gift practical items. Depending on the state of his or her immune system, flowers or a fruit basket may be out of the question. Some helpful gifts might include— a gift card, Netflix/Hulu/HBO subscription, or audio version of his or her favorite book.
“Give your friend a notebook and pen so they can write down ways people can help. Even things like hats or a type of gum that helps with the taste of the central line flushes. Post the list and redirect people there” -Sara, Survivor
7) Be yourself. I know this seems counter-intuitive after reading a list of things you should (or shouldn’t) do, but try not to lose yourself in the process. Your loved one is probably craving some sense of normalcy while going through treatment, so don’t shy away from chatting about last week’s episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or your fantasy football league.
“ Encourage the person to talk about what they are going through but also just talk about normal things as well.” -Lisa, Survivor.
I’m grateful that both my mom and I are now cancer-free, but I know that the next friend or loved one diagnosed will be just as shocking. There’s no perfect way to navigate the cancer journey, but just remember, you are not alone.
Liz Hagag is a childhood Leukemia survivor and Marketing Coordinator at LIVESTRONG.