Supporting a friend with breast cancer: How to help, what not to say

Posted June 07, 2012, at 4:43 p.m.
Last modified June 08, 2012, at 8:48 a.m.
Sonja Faulkner

Friends and loved ones of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer often feel lost. Unsure what to say or do, they frequently disengage just when they’re needed most.

Breast cancer patients and survivors have strong opinions about what we deem helpful. In the days after a diagnosis, for example, we want to hear, “You won’t have to face your illness alone.” “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m sorry” work well, too.

Understandably, fear and nervousness elicit many annoying comments, but some that are especially grating include “Oh, you’ll be fine,” “It could be worse,” “None of us knows how long we have,” and “Just be positive.” Each comes across as dismissive and flippant.

The healing power of social support is well documented, both empirically and anecdotally. After the diagnosis, communication is at the top of the list for meaningful acts of kindness.

When feeling shell-shocked, cards, emails and phone calls expressing support give much-needed strength to move into the treatment phase. Grocery shopping, cooking, housework, yard work, or taking care of children and pets are also appreciated, as well as driving to or attending doctors’ appointments, running errands and helping with tasks in the workplace.

During treatment, which may include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, be specific with offers of help. Instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” consider, “I have Saturday afternoon free. Would you like me to take your kids to the movies?”

Care packages during this time are welcomed treats. For those undergoing radiation, helpful items include soft cotton tank tops, aloe vera, and ibuprophen; for chemotherapy, a soft knit cap and socks, body cream, lip balm and ginger tea for nausea come in handy. Books, magazines, crossword puzzles and CDs are other good choices.

Once the recovery phase begins, continued support and encouragement are most meaningful. The kindest sentiment is, “I’m proud of your courage and resiliency.” Conversely, be wary of, “Now that that’s all over with, you can get on with your life.” It’s never really over for us because of endless doctors’ appointments and fear of recurrence.

As the friend or loved one of a woman battling breast cancer, you have the power to make an extraordinary difference in her life. Take time to reach out often and encourage her warrior spirit. She’ll be grateful for the rest of her life.

A recent breast cancer survivor, Sonja L. Faulkner, Ph.D., was born in Bangor and raised in Eddington. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young son. Her book “The Best Friend’s Guide to Breast Cancer: What to Do if Your Bosom Buddy or Loved One is Diagnosed” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. A portion of sales will go to Pink Lotus Petals, a nonprofit that provides screening and treatment to underserviced populations.

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