When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, there are so many unanswered questions for the patient and their loved ones. Why? What kind? What’s the prognosis?
These are usually some of the first thoughts the patient, family, and friends have immediately after the diagnosis. It is important to remember that questions can be tough to answer and the patient may not have all of the answers yet. Accept what they are saying.
Many times people are unsure what to say or what to do. They feel helpless. Do I talk about the diagnosis? Should I visit or make contact with the friend or loved one? If so, when, and what do I say? The anxiety about saying the “wrong” thing is a real struggle when you want to be a support for your loved one.
While each case is individual, letting the patient know you want to support them will likely ease some of the anxiety during those first visits after one is diagnosed. Because many times there are so many unanswered questions, people appreciate someone “just being there” from time to time. Practice active listening. No words are needed.
However, when you do tell the cancer patient statements like, “I am here for you” or “We’ll get through this together” make sure you mean what you say. Taking action and following through with those statements can make a world of difference.
Ask the patient specifically what you can do to help. If you tell your loved one, “Let me know if you need anything,” it will likely not generate a request even though they may need help. People feel embarrassed to ask for help or they are unsure if you actually mean it or are just making small talk.
Some helpful suggestions might make it easier for the patient when you offer to help. Let them know you are preparing a meal for the family on a specific day; however, ask them if there is anything they would like or if there is something that should be avoided.
Offering to sweep and mop floors or mow the lawn while they are undergoing treatment can be a tremendous help. Offer to pick up needed groceries or transport children to/ from school, church, or extracurricular activities. If the patient has recently undergone surgery, offer to help them wash their hair, as lifting their arms above their head is nearly impossible.
Taking the burden off them and putting your words into action helps them be assured that their family members can remain in a somewhat stable environment during this stressful time. It can truly make a world of difference to them.
At other times, it is important to take cues from the patient. If they want to talk about their diagnosis, let them. Be honest about your feelings of being unsure of what to say, but do not overburden them by focusing on your issues surrounding the diagnosis.
It is imperative to choose your words wisely, use caution when asking questions, and make sure it is okay to offer advice. Try not to compare their diagnosis with others who have had the same diagnosis. Every case is individualized, and people react to treatment differently. It is not “one size fits all.”
Should you talk about topics other than cancer? Absolutely! It is extremely important. The diversion from cancer talk is often welcomed. It is important to remember that just because they have a breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean that life stands still for them. Let your friend or family member talk about whatever is on their mind. It may be their family, upcoming events or holidays, their garden, the latest sporting news, or their next vacation.
Think about being a “wingman” for your loved one. Because it is easy to be overwhelmed during this stressful time, ask if you can go along to important doctor appointments to take notes and be that “extra set of ears.” They may need someone to drive them to and from treatments as well.
Just as there are appropriate things to say to a breast cancer patient, there are also inappropriate questions and statements they would rather not hear. Remember, unless you have “walked in their shoes,” you can only imagine what they are enduring.
Breast cancer patients often have to deal with inappropriate questions and statements ranging from “Why didn’t you just have the lump removed?” “It’s not like you’ll need them, your kids are grown,” “It’s just hair,” to “You’ll get a free boob job.” Although these words are often used to try and comfort a loved one, they often times come off as awkward and callous. Choose your words wisely.
While these are just a few suggestions to help a person as they battle breast cancer, it is so important for the patient to know they are supported and loved. Listening, accepting a person’s decisions, staying connected, and keeping life as normal as possible demonstrate some much needed support for your loved one. Sometimes something as simple as “I love you” can make their day.