How to Provide Breast Cancer Support

7 Ways to Support Someone With Breast Cancer

breast cancer support

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.

Forty-five-year-old Sandra Joly of Cutler Bay, Florida chose to undergo a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 44. She said the toughest part of the mastectomy for her was a painful post-surgery recovery period. Help from her mother, an in-home nurse and financial and emotional support from the Alliance in Reconstructive Surgery (AIRS) Foundation were instrumental in her healing process.

"It was amazing to know that there are people who care and understand, and I didn't feel alone," said Joly.

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."

Joly said having her loved ones there for her doctor's appointments, chemotherapy and surgeries was an important source of support for her throughout the treatment process.

"They were supportive and always kept positive," she said.

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.

4. Anticipate and help

Anticipate when your loved one with breast cancer can't do something on her own and help, or change things so she can do them herself.

"After surgery, I couldn't lift my arms for a long time, so I couldn't reach anything in high cupboards," a friend who's a breast cancer survivor told me. "I'm very independent, so it really bothered me to ask for help. My friends moved everything down onto lower shelves so I could reach things myself. They put my favorite shoes by the door. They set up a table by the bed, so I could reach everything from there. It made such a big difference."

5. Function as the forward guard.

Women tend to be the communicators in their families, fielding phone calls and e-mails, responding to invitations and inquiries. A cancer diagnosis typically triggers an even greater need for communication; it's natural for friends and families to call, e-mail, and request Facebook updates, asking how the cancer patient is doing. And it's all too common for a woman battling cancer to get sucked into taking care of everyone else's reactions when they need to focus on taking care of themselves. One thing practically every breast cancer patient I spoke with said, "I spent too much time taking care of everyone else's feelings and not enough time focusing on my own."

This is where a partner or friend can step in as gatekeeper. Think of yourself in the role of a celebrity handler; it's your job to create a buffer zone of peace and quiet around your loved one. "I've been trying to guard her from too much information and from an overwhelming number of 'how are you' and 'be strong' e-mails," said one husband. "She loves all the notes and e-mails -- but she just can't stand to cry even once more from the outpouring of love and support, so I read them to her and answer them for her."

6. Advocate and hang in there.

Cancer treatment can involve many unpleasant side effects. And sometimes, sadly, these side effects are more unpleasant than they need to be. Yet, for some reason, it's often difficult for cancer patients to get their medical teams to take side effects like nausea, nerve damage, pain, and fatigue as seriously as they should. Many cancer patients encounter a blasé "you'll get through it eventually" attitude when they try to get help, perhaps because doctors and nurses have seen it all before and tend to focus more on big-picture issues, like survival.

But when a cancer patient is too exhausted to get out of bed, too sick to eat, or can't walk due to nerve pain or blisters, it's time to get help. And it can require a fair degree of assertiveness to get that help. Your job? You're the advocate, the fierce, protective papa bear. Don't let the nurse or doctor off the phone until they've answered all your questions and suggested concrete solutions. Your weapons? Lots of questions that begin with "Isn't there something available for . . . " and "What can we do about . . . "

7. Don't expect everything to be fine right away.

Even the "well-adjusted" cancer patient who thinks she's doing great is going to have some really tough days. And delayed reactions are common. Many women steel themselves to handle hair loss and feel strong -- until they first try on a wig or lose their eyebrows. One woman I know told me she thought she was fine with losing her breast until one night, months after surgery, she dreamed she had her old body back and woke in tears, then spent weeks in a deep depression.

Hang in there, for as long as it takes. Help her choose pretty head scarves, buy her some new eye makeup, reassure her that flat is sexy, tell her how beautiful she looks -- over and over again, year after year.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

over 3 years, said...

Good Evening I have a family member who has breast cancer , but she has not told me officially. She has stage two , and is receiving treatment. I am heart broken and do not know how to get her to tell me. I am so sad for her , and what can i do to support her.

over 4 years, said...

I am a survivor of non-Hodkin's Lymphoma inspite of stage 4 and less than a 20% chance of survival.I am a retired? facial plastic and reconstrutive surgeon.My late wife had an almost 100% chance of surviving stage 1 Breast Cancer.she died as a direct result of her doctors.This is not a sales pitch but read my bookEven Doctors Cry"available on amazon

over 4 years, said...

It is a fact that medical marijuana helps those breast cancer and those taking chemo.

over 4 years, said...

My favorite way to show support it to punch them in the tits really hard and say "Quit being such a whiney little tw@t and man up"

over 4 years, said...

There is one more advice. Know what is the most critical behavior of "normal' for the person so that you can help her get to that routine as soon as possible. The seven other great ideas are to get her to this stage. For my wife and me, my taking care of the drainage brought us closer together and intimately. But getting her back to walking and jogging was just as important.

almost 5 years, said...

Making sure that the person who is battling breast cancer has all the support in the world is so incredibly important! If you are a relative and can't be there for your loved one in person I suggest getting them a meaningful representation of how much you care. I found this website a few months back and fell in love with what they offered. The people I have given these to have absolutely adored it!

over 5 years, said...

I am single with no family other than a daughter, age 22, and brother age 26 who works nightshift in another city. I very much lacked support and relied on friends. During my chemo (Adriamycin and Cytoxin), I was extremely nauseated and depressed.... for over a week. I wanted a friend to visit me on my worst days... and perhaps bring a healthy dish over because I was unable to cook. What was helpful, was people taking charge and seeing what things needed to be done and helping with them (cleaning, yardwork, shopping). I also appreciated knowing people were "Thinking of me" during chemo and the days that followed. What didn't help, were empty offers... "let me know if I can do anything". Because people with cancer won't ask for help.

about 6 years, said...

All the 7th tips are best and useful!

over 6 years, said...

You put into words what I have been doing for my daughter 8 years....I notices the section below "Get Answers" that had a question that asked what is the survival answer to that - pray a lot.

over 6 years, said...

it is good to know about some tips of how to support a breast cancer patients but for me, if ever i have the same problem i would rather go to the doctor alone......i will face the problem bravely and decide what makes best for me just to save my life and live longer ........

over 6 years, said...

my wife had stage 4 breast cancer I went to all cemo and ration appoinments with her I took over talking to family and friends when there was times she couldnt even get out of bed i was able to be home due to being laid off I think it was meant to be for me to be there for her when she lost her hair i supported her even got her to feel fine with it she still get upset about things the copays have took all are savings like i tell her we will make it things will get better for us

over 6 years, said...

Thank you for an informative article...I have had breast cancer...I had to go it alone in another did not come thru...thank God for the phone and good friends...I have had to end some relationships due to the lack of understanding I encountered...when they are not there for you when you need them....when you have been there for them...really is an eye opener!

almost 7 years, said...

First of all, know that YOU CAN DO IT! I had lost friends to this disease but never in my lifetime ever imagined I would get it myself--and had never been close to anyone going thru chemo. I was a stage 2+. As a stage 1, I am optimistic that you may get away with just a lumpectomy and maybe radiation. The lumpectomy isn't bad...aminor outpatient procedure that takes a little while to fill in and heal. Radiation is a piece of cake if you need to have it. There is even a 5-day option--bracheytherapy, that uses concentrated, directed radiation. It wasn't an option for me as I had minor lymph node involvement. Stage 1 is very early and very, very curable! I know it's terrifying but you'll be able to handle it. I think I'd share with your teenagers and let them know how important their support and help will be during this time. Let your husband handle the rest of the communications. If you're emotional like me, it's really hard to talk about without crying. I tried to be brave. At the time I was a high school principal and working long hours. One day both my head guidance counselor and my radiation oncologist told me to stop trying to be Superwoman. They were right! No one expects you to be strong all the time--just when it's really important. If you want to stay in touch I'd be glad to try to help you thru this. If you think it's safe to send your email address thru this site, do so. Otherwise we can just talk here. Do NOT imagine the worst. You will be fine!!!!!

almost 7 years, said...

I just found out yesterday that I have Stage 1 Breast Cancer. The MRI is scheduled for next week. I am so scared. I haven't told any family members. I just don't think I can bring myself to tell them. So do you think it would be best for my husband to tell them. I have 2 teenagers. I will tell them myself this weekend. I have so many mixed emotions and I'm scared to tell anyone how I feel.

almost 7 years, said...

This article is right on the money! Having a husband who went to appointments with me, both for check-ups and chemo-was priceless. When I was too tired to do much else, he would come home from work-he owned a retail business, open 7 days a week-and take me for a ride in the country. He relayed any "bad" news to relatives so that I did not have to talk about those things to people I love. He shaved my head the day my hair began to fall out. He went with me to choose wigs in advance of that day. I will save this article for any unlucky friends or relatives who find themselves in this situation. It's a keeper!