When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be one of the most frightening times in her life. When she shares this information with her family and friends, it is often difficult for them to know what to say or what to do to help support her.
“You don’t have to know what to say,” says Jean Rowe, a licensed clinical social worker and certified oncology social worker who works as the associate director of survivorship programs for Young Survival Coalition (YSC). Rowe suggests being honest with a statement such as, ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do, but I want to help.’” She says that will mean so much more than not saying anything or simply disappearing.
Oftentimes, the survivor is immediately overwhelmed with organizing doctor appointments, conducting research, handling daily tasks and may not know how to ask for help. “There are different types of friends,” says Rowe. “People with different gifts can support a survivor in different ways.” Some people will be helpful with going with the survivor to the doctor while others can set up an online community support calendar such as Lotsa Helping Hands or manage updates via Caring Bridge, both of which are free. Through these, a friend can decide how to help. Typically, a friend knows her newly diagnosed friend well enough to figure out where she will need the most support. A few examples could be walking a survivor’s dog, arranging play dates for her children or running with her on errands.
After women have completed chemotherapy, radiation or surgery and not going to the doctor as often, it’s important not to assume that they are fine. “Ask questions about how you can support them all along their journey,” says Rowe. “Just because someone’s hair has grown back or a survivor isn’t talking about treatment in the same way doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal,” she adds. “Their lives have been permanently impacted, and they will appreciate continued support. Without it, survivors may feel isolated and not ask for further help.”
It’s important to remember the survivor has been through a life-altering situation that has changed her physically, emotionally and spiritually. Rowe says it’s key to ask questions about how you can support her through her different stages, but it’s not your responsibility to fix things. “You need to let the survivor be herself and feel her feelings,” she explains. “Most of the time, people just want to be listened to, heard and for you to be present. Just showing up makes a big difference.”
In 2011, when Jamekia Davis was given the shocking news that she had breast cancer, she left her doctor’s office feeling numb. She then went to her car, where she sat and cried. After Davis prayed, she called her mother and shared the news. “She sat there quietly and listened to everything,” says Davis. Then she said, ‘You’re gonna be O.K.’”
Although Davis was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer called Paget’s disease, it was caught early, and her doctor said it was treatable; she learned she would have 35 rounds of radiation over seven weeks. A naturally upbeat person, Davis tried to maintain a positive attitude, but she admits this wasn’t always easy. “You go through those moments when you say, ‘Hey I can do this. I’m strong’,” she says. “Then you wake up one day after you did your treatment. You’re drained, you’re not feeling your best and you get sad.”
Davis was fortunate enough to have a great support system to help her during moments of uncertainty. “I had friends that would just pop up when I would get out of radiation,” she recalls. “I would see them sitting out there waiting for me in the lobby.” When they couldn’t be there in person, Davis says people would send her text messages or call to say something encouraging or share a Bible scripture with her.
After she completed her treatment, Davis says, people assumed that everything was fine. “As far as still calling like they did [before], they didn’t, not as much,” she said. She was OK with that even though it left her a bit down, but she moved forward with her life. Today, Davis is a state leader for YSC in Georgia so she can help support and connect other young breast cancer survivors. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to help someone else. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do: encourage someone else so that I can give to someone else what was given to me.”
Susan Brown, managing director of health and science education of Susan G. Komen, says that she often hears breast cancer survivors describe how they felt out of control at the time of diagnosis and that a friend being there with them helped them regain some of that sense of control. Here are some things to remember when you are lending support to someone who has breast cancer:
- Be a good listener. Try to understand where your friend is and what she really needs from you.
- Her needs may change over time. What a person needs to hear or how she needs your support when she’s first diagnosed with breast cancer is different than what she may need six weeks or six months later.
- Just be there. It’s less important about what you say and it’s more important that you’re present.
- Be cautious about giving personal advice, especially if you’re a survivor. Everyone’s situation is different.
- Be careful about sharing stories about others who have had cancer but didn’t have a good outcome.
- Information is very important especially in the beginning. You can be helpful by gathering information, writing a list of questions for the patient to take to their doctor, going with them to appointments to help them take notes, so they can make informed decisions.
- Offer practical support. The survivor will need help getting things done, so offer to cook meals, help with childcare, drive her to appointments, clean her house or help with grocery shopping.
- Emotional support. Give a hug, send a card or an email, hold her hands or sit with her quietly.
- Social support. Studies have shown that just being a friend to someone, providing that social support can decrease depression, and even decrease the perception of pain. It can also improve mood, self-image and the ability to cope with stress.
- After treatment ends, continue checking in on the survivor.
**Free Resources to help you learn more about how to support someone who has breast cancer:
- Advice for the Caregiver—Young Survival Coalition
- Supporting a Friend Who Has Cancer— American Cancer Society
- Ways to Respond When Someone You Know Has Cancer—American Cancer Society
- What’s happening to mom? (Susan G. Komen)
- What’s happening to the one I love? (couples) – Susan G. Komen
- What’s happening to the one we love? (family and friends)—Susan G. Komen (family/friends)
- Susan G. Komen Breast Care Helpline, 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636). All calls are answered by a trained and caring staff, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. EST. The helpline provides free professional support services to anyone with breast cancer questions or concerns, including breast cancer survivors and their families.
2015 Events for Breast Cancer Survivors and Co-Survivors
YSC Summit – #2015 March 6-8, 2015 in Houston—This three-day national conference will feature inspirational speakers, workshops addressing the unique issues that young women with breast cancer face, and special wellness activities. **Travel Grants and Registration Waivers available **
Sisters Network Inc.—Sixth Annual National African American Breast Cancer 5K Walk / Run, April 25, 2015, Houston.
Follow survivor and journalist Khadijah Carter on Twitter @kcreports.