Support Someone With Breast Cancer
7 Ways to Support Someone With Breast Cancer
Finding yourself in Cancer World happens very suddenly. The doctor -- or someone close to you -- tells you it's cancer, and all of a sudden everything changes. How are you supposed to know, instantly, how to be supportive to a woman going through something this terrifying?
I thought the best way to offer help to the husbands, other family members, partners, and friends who suddenly find themselves thrust into this role was to ask the cancer patients themselves what was most -- and least -- helpful. Here are seven things women with breast cancer and their partners have discovered about what worked best when it came to supporting them through this ordeal.
1. Support whatever she decides.
Breast cancer involves endless decisions: lumpectomy and radiation or mastectomy? Some women elect to have a bilateral mastectomy (both breasts removed), so they feel safer. These decisions can be really scary for a woman to talk to her partner and friends about. It may sound like she's asking for advice, and you may feel underqualified to give it.
Don't worry -- no one expects you to be a medical expert. Your role is to act as a sounding board. Listen to everything she says without judgment, letting her bounce her thoughts off of you. Help her weigh the pros and cons, but let her make the decisions. And make it clear you'll be behind her 100 percent. Try to listen for the fears and other emotions underlying her decision, and offer as much emotional reassurance as you can.
This is particularly important when it comes to the emotional flashpoint of mastectomy. Many women resist mastectomy even when the doctor advises it, because they fear their partner will find them less attractive. If you're that partner, this is where you come in. Let her know what you really care about: her safety and health, and reassure her that her fears are unfounded. Tell her that her health is paramount and you feel strongly that she not take unnecessary risks where her life and future are concerned.
2. Don't let her go to appointments alone.
No matter how self-reliant or brave she tries to be, no matter how many times she says, "No, you don't need to bother," don't be conned. Going to a cancer appointment alone is no fun. "I told my wife early on that this condition may be in her body, but that it's really something that affects both of us -- she's not going to be going through this alone," one husband told me. "I have been to every single appointment with every doctor with her, just so that I can help with the decision making. Our wives are understandably freaked out by the diagnosis, and we need to be there for reassurance and support."
3. Talk to her openly about her breasts.
Let's be honest: Breasts play a big role in our sex lives, and the loss of one or both breasts can deeply threaten a woman's sense of sexuality. If your wife or partner decides to have a mastectomy or double mastectomy, chances are she's terrified about how you'll react to her changed body. You, and only you, can reassure her that you'll still find her attractive. Trust me on this, guys, you may think it's obvious that your loved one's health is all that really matters, but she needs to hear it -- and will probably need to keep hearing it many, many times over the next few years.
If it's a friend you're supporting, be aware that she needs your reassurance in terms of her looks, her outward shape, and -- if she's single -- her future dating potential. As one woman put it, "Even when you know in your heart that a bilateral mastectomy is the thing to do, there's still the shock and maybe a little anger at what it looks like when you first take the bandages off. Be there to listen or hug her when that time comes."
This is a situation where anticipation may well be worse than reality; things usually get better once time begins its healing action. Your job is to help time along by making her feel loved and sexy, even when you're both trying to get used to the scars.