You have breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, those four words will strike fear in the hearts of nearly 300,000 women in the United States this year alone. Second only to skin cancer, breast cancer accounts for approximately one in three of all new female cancers each year. In other words, there’s an excellent chance that someone you love either has been or will be diagnosed with this disease that the ACS predicts will claim the lives of more than 43,000 women this year.
If that sounds like a sobering thought, it is, and no one should have to deal with it alone. A strong support system is critical to a woman’s well-being as she navigates her new reality. But what if you aren’t sure how to step up?
Don’t Let Fear Stop You
We all want to help when a friend, family member, or co-worker faces the reality of breast cancer, but the magnitude of it can be overwhelming. Aside from the physical toll on the body, the disease affects a woman’s mental health, releasing a roller coaster of emotions from sadness to fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. She may even push her friends away. Not knowing what to do or say is understandable, but don’t allow your fear of doing the wrong thing prevent you from doing anything. Your loved one needs you now more than ever, whether she knows it or not.
“It takes a village,” admits Renata Montemayor, a fiercely independent entrepreneur and single mother of two grown daughters. Montemayor, who has battled breast cancer not once but twice, explains that help doesn’t have to look like a sweeping grand gesture. Sometimes, the most minor thing, like sending a daily check-in text, can significantly impact a patient’s well-being. “We may not always need physical things, so just spend time with us,” she says, adding, “We mostly want to feel normal.”
Not only does having your support make your friend feel more “normal,” it may make a difference in her quality of life and healing. The ACF reports, “Many studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life.”
How to Offer Support
If you need suggestions on the best ways to support your friend or loved one battling breast cancer, the following six ideas can get you started.
- Books and movies: When Montemayor was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she experienced depression and anxiety that “never really went away.” As a way of distracting herself, she often snuck out to the movies. “I spent many hours in a theatre to be comfortable and distracted,” she recalls. “Nobody knew, but I loved that time.” Most movie theatres offer a one-year subscription, or you can pick up a prepaid gift card. A Netflix or other streaming subscription can do the trick if she can’t leave the house. Or try a subscription to CHIRP Audiobooks. It might be easier for her to lose herself in a story if she listens to someone else read it. Plus, it’s something to do during chemo treatments.
- Pamper her: One of the cruelest things about breast cancer is that it often steals some of the physical attributes that make a woman feel outwardly beautiful. Specifically, her hair, her eyelashes, and sometimes her breasts. “It’s easy for us to feel unattractive and broken,” says Montemayor. Help her feel as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside by giving her a gift card to Ulta or Sephora. Hire a manicurist to come to her home for a mani/pedi. Go wig shopping together and have fun with it! Get one for yourself, too, and wear them out together.
- Help with daily responsibilities: Set up weekly grocery deliveries. Organize a meal train. Pay for a housekeeping service. Offer to pick up and drop off kids. Better yet, offer to take them off her hands for a few days. Anything you can do to help her find rest and “me” time can be instrumental to her healing.
- Support her mental health: Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient’s physical health. Her mental health can take a beating both during and after her diagnosis and treatment. Connect her with a professional service like Flatwater Foundation. This nonprofit offers quality therapy to cancer patients at no cost. “These therapists are professional, kind, and empathetic,” describes Montemayor. “I will be forever grateful for the impact this organization has had on me as I slowly find myself again.”
- Don’t be afraid of the quiet. Sitting in stillness with your friend is sometimes all she needs. Whether you’re accompanying her to a treatment or sitting in front of the TV together, your presence serves as a comforting reminder that she is not in this alone.
- Let her have her feelings. Spoiler alert: you can’t fix this, so don’t try. Let your friend have her feelings and sit with her in them. Let her cry, voice her worst fears, and scream and swear if she needs to. Do it with her if you need to. Just don’t try to put a “happy face” on it because some days with cancer suck. There’s nothing you can do about it.
One of the best and most important things you can do is remember that your friend is the same person she was pre-cancer, so don’t be afraid to treat her that way. You are allowed to laugh and talk about things other than her disease if that is what she wants to do. Be flexible and sensitive, taking your cues from her moods and feelings, which may change from hour to hour.
Above all, please resist the urge to play doctor and offer up your unsolicited opinions on her treatment choices or report the findings of your latest Google search on her prognosis. Chances are that she is already overwhelmed with information from her professional medical team and doesn’t need the additional confusion. For a complete list of things to do (and not do), both large and small, visit the American Cancer Society.