When my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was very private about her diagnosis. She told very few people she had breast cancer. She purchased a wig to mask her hair loss and did radiation treatments during lunch, so her coworkers didn’t even know she had cancer.
People diagnosed with cancer navigate it in different ways. Some people are very private about it, while others are very open about it. Private or public, every cancer patient needs support, and when my sister was diagnosed, I felt what many people feel when a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer: helpless. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how.
I thought it would be useful to have a guide for family or friends that provided tangible ways to support a loved one who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States — about 1 in 8 U.S. women (approximately 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. So how do the rest of us support these women who are diagnosed with breast cancer?
Tangible Ways to Help a Loved One After a Cancer Diagnosis
Each person diagnosed with breast cancer handles it differently. Some people might want help with their day-to-day responsibilities, whereas others might want to be distracted from their diagnosis. It’s important to be sensitive to your loved one’s preferences. It’s also helpful to make concrete offers such as, “I can bring a meal for your family today or Saturday,” as opposed to a vague, “Call me if you need anything.” Here are some ideas:
- Food. During times of distress, people love to deliver food or set up a meal train. However, for people with cancer, food can be a tricky area. Many times, patients undergoing chemotherapy don’t have an appetite or need to avoid certain foods. Check with your loved one before bringing food. That said, even if they can’t eat, it may be helpful to drop off food for their family so no one has to cook. Just remember, unless specifically asked to stay, make sure you drop the food and depart. You don’t want your loved one to feel like they have to entertain guests.
- Research. Some people with breast cancer may appreciate the camaraderie of a support group, while others may want nothing to do with them. If you think your loved one is the type who would benefit from a support group (either in person or online), gathering links and directing them to various support groups/resources is a great way to help.
- Support during cosmetic changes. Many women struggle with the cosmetic aspects of breast cancer — losing their hair or getting a mastectomy. Something as simple as accompanying your loved one to pick out a wig or providing support after a mastectomy can make all the difference.
- Rides to treatment. Treatment for breast cancer can be challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re able, offer to drive the person to treatment. It takes a huge burden off of them and allows them to focus on their treatment.
- Help with errands/chores/childcare. Everyday life doesn’t grind to a halt after a breast cancer diagnosis. Offer to pick up prescriptions or groceries, or ask if you can hire a cleaning service to come clean for them. If your loved one has children at home, offer to babysit or drive them to school/sports practices/music lessons.
- Care baskets. Care baskets are a wonderful way to provide personalized support for someone undergoing treatment. Fill it with small items of comfort that you know the person would like such as socks, a heating pad, candles, pajamas, pictures, books or magazines, lip balm, or ginger candy (to help with nausea). The American Cancer Society provides some additional ideas for gifts.
- Gift cards. My sister’s treatment occurred about an hour away from where she lived, so every time she had to drive to treatment, she had to pay for gas, tolls, meals, etc. This all adds up, and can be an additional financial burden for those undergoing treatment. One way to provide support is by sending gift cards for gas or meals. Since I live far from my sister, this was one way that I felt like I could help from a distance.
- A welcome distraction. Sometimes, people with breast cancer just want a break from talking about cancer. They may be tired of the constant discussion around treatment and medical jargon, or they may feel that cancer is the only thing that people talk to them about. This is where you could provide a welcome distraction in the form of funny books, movies, or podcasts. Consider giving a subscription to a podcast, music, or movie streaming service.
And don’t forget to offer support on an ongoing basis. After a cancer diagnosis, people rally and come together to provide support in a big way. But often, as time goes on, people retreat back into their daily lives and support can fall by the wayside. Treatment may be long, and our loved ones need us just as much one year in as they did in the beginning.
What to Say
Talking to someone after they are diagnosed with breast cancer can be tricky. Many times, you don’t know what to say. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, so maybe you don’t say anything. But staying silent can be hurtful. Luckily, there are guides on helpful things to say to someone with cancer.
And don’t underestimate the power of listening. People with breast cancer experience a wide range of emotions, from fear and anger to anxiety and depression. Many times, someone with cancer just needs someone to listen to what they are feeling.
Protecting the Vulnerable
As we enter into cold and flu season, it’s worth noting the importance of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu to protect those with cancer. People with cancer are very vulnerable to even seemingly mild illnesses since their immune systems are so compromised. It’s critically important to wear a mask and get vaccinated to protect people with cancer from COVID-19, the flu, or other respiratory illnesses that peak during the colder months.