1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. So, unfortunately, chances are one of your close friends or family will be affected. Knowing what or what not to do can make all the difference. It is proven that patients with great support systems have a better prognosis. It's scary finding out someone you love has cancer, especially if you have no experience with the disease. These few simple suggestions, can make a big difference.
Let's start with the don'ts. Please stop trying to make us feel better. It's cancer. It sucks. It's going to suck for a long time. Don't say "everything will be okay". Nothing about fighting cancer is okay. And everyone can talk about how not okay it is. Remain positive, but be real. Empathize instead of sympathize. Let them vent, cry, or scream. You won't be able to fix it, but just being there and understanding can be a huge support. Also stay away from "motivational"stories about others, whether they are 20 year survivors or if they passed away. This is awkward and overwhelming at the beginning of this crazy ride.
And please don't say "it's just hair, it will grow back". I know this is meant to make them feel better, but unless you've lost your hair due to chemo, you have no clue how much this can affect some patients. Along with everything else going on, losing your hair can take away your femininity, your identity. your self esteem. And it can take years to grow it back. Losing eyebrows and eyelashes is painful. You don't realize their worth until they are gone.
"Free boob job". I don't think there's a breast cancer patient out there that hasn't heard this one. I know this is said as a "silver lining", trying to find some positive. I think most people don't realize that there's a huge difference between getting a "boob job" and getting breast reconstruction. Reconstruction can be a long painful path with many surgeries.
Now that you know what not to say, there are many things you can say and do that will be supportive. I think the best thing you can do is show up. Reach out to them, because chances are they are so busy with appointments, tests, trying to gather info, that they won't be contacting you first. This doesn't mean they don't want you around, they are just very lost. The first few weeks after diagnosis are a very scary blur. Here's a list of things you can do from those first overwhelming weeks and through treatment.
Help out.... don't wait for her to come to you, most patients refuse help when asked "what can I do for you?" Just do. While visiting, maybe tidy up the house for her. Grab groceries. Offer to pick up kids from school or daycare.
..Start a meal train.... I didn't realize how amazing these were until I was on the receiving end. I looked forward to my weekly drop off. It was nice to have a great meal that I didn't need to prepare. My group added so many other incredible treats and gifts. They would add magazines, slippers, gift cards, chocolate and even the occasional bottle of wine. I was so spoiled. I can't even describe how much this lifted my spirits. And it was a nice little visit with each person taking turns to do the drop off when I was feeling up to it.
..Attend appointments with her...there is such a incredible amount of information given at these first appointments, that it's not possible to remember it all. I had someone write everything down for me, so I could read it later. This was a huge help.
..Have a wig party....going shopping for a wig before it's needed is easier and less stressful. Your friend will need support during this. Wig shopping is a bit of a reality check. Cancer gets more real at this point. Have fun with the wigs, try some on yourself. Maybe go for lunch after.
..Sit with her during chemo....infusion days can be very long. They are also very unsettling, even after a few. Having someone with you can distract you from everything that is happening. I had few friends with each treatment. We would laugh, tell stories...it could almost be chalked up as fun times.
..Spoil her....buy her flowers, send her gifts. Little pick me ups go a long way. A little reason to smile during a dark, frightening time.
..Have a head shaving party....when it came time for me to shave my head, I was lucky to be able to go to my hairstylists shop at the end of the day when it wasn't busy. I brought a couple friends, with wine hidden in our coffee travel mugs. This was also the final styling of my wig on my now bald head. After, the girls took me out for dinner to sport my new look. I honestly don't know how I would have gotten through this without their support.
..Celebrate milestones....and she will have lots of them. Whether big or small to you, each step is a bit closer to the end. Each battle won is worth celebrating.
..Let them grieve....have a pity party. This could be one of the worst moments of her life. There's no sugar coating it. Let her be afraid, sad, fearful of the future.
..Ask....asking questions makes her feel like you care. Ask about treatment, ask how it feels. Chances are she will want to share these experiences.
Supporting someone through cancer isn't easy. Continuing friendships through cancer makes a big difference. And don't forget about her after treatment. Trying to find her way through her "new normal" can be just as hard.
Everyone, no matter how strong you think they are, can benefit from having a friend.