When a Loved One Has Breast Cancer

In the United States alone, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.

When the diagnosis comes, the routines of daily life often grind to a halt as the affected woman reorganizes her life around doctor’s visits and treatment. When someone we know and love is diagnosed with breast cancer, we want to help but don’t always know what to do or say. Indy’s Child reached out to some of our local breast cancer support organizations to ask about tangible ways to provide support to a friend or family member battling breast cancer.

“The most important thing is that you want to take the pressure off of the patient, not put it on the patient,” says Dori Sparks-Unsworth, the Executive Director of Pink Ribbon Connection, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that offers support to women with breast cancer. Pink Ribbon Support provides a local peer counseling helpline, free wigs, bras and prosthetics and monthly education sessions for patients and their families. “Don’t say, ‘tell me what you need’”, says Sparks-Unsworth. “A patient is overwhelmed and exhausted. Say, ‘this is a task I can take from you. May I do so?’”  

Taking over laundry, lawn work and house cleaning are very tangible ways that friends and family can support a breast cancer patient. If the person battling cancer is a young mom, consider helping out with childcare. “Take those kids away for the afternoon to the park. Little ones want mom to hold them but she can’t pick them up right after surgery so entertaining the kids is an enormous help,” says Sparks-Unsworth.

Nancy Shepard, Founder and Executive Director of the I.W.I.N. Foundation, a non-profit that pays for services that relieve the physical and financial challenges that people are experiencing from cancer treatment, notes that even if you live far away from your loved one you can still provide support. “Friends or family that might not be in town can call and find local support services for their loved one,” she says. 

No matter what you’re able to offer, make sure that you are specific. “Say, I’d like to come and get three loads of laundry on Wednesday and I’ll bring it back to you on Friday,” suggests Sparks-Unsworth.

Meals are another wonderful way to help a cancer patient, as lifting and bending in front of the stove can be difficult for a woman healing from surgery, and treatment can often leave the patient exhausted and nauseated. Software programs like Caring Bridge help friends and family organize responsibilities. “Oftentimes people come to the table right out of the gate and they’re all delivering the same meal, they’re all there at the same time. Using a program to divvy up their roles is very helpful,” says Shepard. It’s important to ask people to bring meals in disposable containers or in a container that doesn’t need to be returned, since the patient likely won’t have the energy to keep track of and return containers. And it’s most helpful to bring a meal that is frozen and can be popped in the oven at a later date. If it’s fresh, let the patient know ahead of time that you’re bringing over a meal that they can eat that night. 

Emotional support is also a crucial way to support a loved one during this challenging and scary time. While you might not know exactly what to say, continue speaking to your loved one the same way you did before her diagnosis. “A lot of people don’t want to say the word cancer, but the person with cancer wants to talk about it,” says Shepard. “If you don’t know how to talk to your loved one about cancer, do your research, get educated and learn how talk about it without feeling intrusive.”

Talking to other women that have been through a breast cancer diagnosis can also provide solace. Pink Ribbon Connection provides a service that connects a newly diagnosed woman with a local survivor that has already been through the treatment process. “Our focus is on providing emotional support to the patients. It’s important for a patient to talk with other women that have been in their shoes. Many times, that turns into a lifelong friendship,” says Sparks-Unsworth. 

Finally, keep in mind that support shouldn’t end when treatment is over. “Everyone thinks cancer left the patient,” says Shepard, “but the patient doesn’t always feel that way. There can still be a fear factor after treatment is over. So let them know they’re still supported and that you know that cancer is something that is still in their life.”  

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