When I found out, as an adult, my first loved one was diagnosed with breast cancer, I handled it badly. I stress ate McDonalds. It was my younger cousin and I was on a road trip to be with her and the rest of my family for my Grandmother’s funeral.
At my Grandmother’s funeral, she was as serene about it as an angel. It was early stages of her diagnosis. Perhaps it hadn’t sunk in to her, perhaps she was putting on a brave face. She had meetings already set up with her patient advocates and would be soon finding out her treatment plan. They had prepared and planned well with a great funeral home.
The next time I had a loved one diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t do much better. A month prior, I had been in communication with one of my closest girlfriends, that she had to go in for a secondary mammogram because something “popped” on the first one. We reassuringly discussed how frequently that happens. She had the secondary mammogram and I kept checking in on her next appointment.
When she called me that night to tell me what had happened at her appointment, luckily I had two good girlfriends over. They refilled my champagne glass while my expected future nursing home roommate gave me her diagnosis. After we got off the phone, I hoped that I gave reassurance and love, but my pillow and my husband’s arms took the brunt of my worries and fears that night.
I would hope, if you ask either my cousin Clare or my friend Michele how I responded, they would tell you I was supportive. While I can’t even imagine the emotional mind game that a breast cancer diagnosis gives, having to deal with the well-intentioned but crippling comments and behavior of the people who love you can add its own level of hell to an already tough path.
What do you say? Your loved one has just told you their soul crushing news and you want to tell them everything that’s in your heart about how much you love them. So you say, “I’m sorry” almost automatically. According to Michele, perhaps rethink that automatic response. “I’ll tell you it’s very hard for someone to not say “I’m sorry” when you hear someone has a sickness/disease/family issue or anything. It’s a person’s natural response. Does a person ever really want you to feel sorry for them? No, but we say it anyway because it comes naturally. I’m guilty of this. Since I’ve been diagnosed, I do my best to not say “I’m sorry” when I hear not so good news. I try to be a good listener and supportive.”
“The best thing came from a friend who hugged me and told me she would be here for me every step of the way..” Michele told me. And, if you are receiving the news over a channel that doesn’t allow for physical touch, Michele suggested, “letting the person know you are here for me to vent and support me and my family is helpful.”
And stop trying to find the “bright side”. “It’s very hard to hear “there’s a gift” or “silver lining” in the darkness of early acceptance,” Clare told me. “I would say, it’s nice if people can say, “I’m here to listen if you are up to talking about the diagnosis, and options, but I understand if that’s hard”. Listening, hugging and sitting in the pain with them are some of the best ways to support a loved one as he or she tells you of their diagnosis.
Support Through Treatment
In some cases, breast cancer treatment can be a grueling battle. When my friend Michele started her chemo, I emailed our friends (at her request) and said, “Getting chemo means she sits in a chair for 3-4 hours while they pump her full of chemicals. She doesn’t know how her body will respond to it, so she’s obviously nervous. They do expect hair loss and further damaging effects, but not until the second session, about three weeks later.” And this after having had surgery to remove the cancer!
While your loved one goes through this battle, how can you show them you care? Clare told me, “I think, while it’s great when people ask how they can help, it’s most awesome when people who know a person diagnosed well enough Just Do things, like “I’m making you and your family dinner, any diet restrictions?” Michele suggested Meal Train as a source for organizing friends for food. “Meal Train is wonderful to have while going through chemo or after you’ve had surgery. Having it every other day during the week was very helpful to my husband and I. I could rest and he could work without having to wonder what to fix for dinner.”
Gifts and tokens of love help. Michele said, “one of my top gifts that I loved was from friends from college. They had individually wrapped gifts which had notes on each of them telling when to open. This was awesome. For example, one note said, “when you want to stick it to cancer, open me”. Inside were heart shaped stickers.” Some other gift idea suggestions from Michele, “If you know they are going to lose their hair, send a pretty scarf, turban or beanie. They will always think of you when he or she wears it.” In general, both Michele and Clare appreciated spontaneous cards, personal notes, and reminders of being loved.
Never underestimate the power of reaching out to talk. Michele said, “Receiving personal phone calls from family and friends are the best. A lot of times when a person is going through chemo, we are alone at home. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.” But, also understanding if communication is limited, it isn’t about you, it is about what your loved one is going through.
Clare told me, “I realized I needed to slow down and do less, which felt like withdrawing to some people I knew. The people who mattered accepted that I wasn’t up for as much electronic or phone communication and they sent book recommendations and candy and just let me know they cared.” However, Clare noted, “The only time I would recommend pushing is if someone is really slipping into week after week of anxiety – then a loved one or friend can be a big support in really saying, let’s find more help, because this seems so so hard right now. Maybe we can make it just a LITTLE easier and that would be worth anything. Asking how your loved one is sleeping can be the best way to see how it’s going, because when I slept well, everything was better.”
Offering to step in to help, can come in a myriad of ways, but knowing they might say no should always be an option. Clare said, “I was grateful to have a friend offer to set up a web fundraising site for me, but the best people will offer and also graciously accept when someone says “no thanks” without really pressing about why. Maybe just say, “Let me know if you change your mind.” Another big thing is to offer to go to appointments, but again don’t push too much if they say no.”
When You Feel Helpless
This was a struggle for me, wishing to take this burden away from my loved ones. Living away from both of them, wanting to offer support, but feeling unable to do much. For Michele, I set up a Facebook group which she hand selected the people that would join it. Before each treatment day, I would post a reminder and her friends and family would fill the page with funny memes, jokes and videos to help entertain her during her treatment. She said it helped her receive support, “especially for someone who isn’t ready to share their story yet with the rest of the world.” As Clare noted to me, “It’s very hard to go into detail about prognosis and treatment with everyone.”
If your loved one hasn’t found any resources, you can help them find some, even from across the country. Clare found true friends through myBCteam – the social network for women facing breast cancer. She also recommended Gilda’s Club for the person diagnosed and their partner/family. Michele recommended finding a local breast cancer support group.
And, if you are wondering about what happened after treatment with Clare and Michele, I have good news to share. Clare just had her first child! Yes! After fighting breast cancer! Michele has recently completed her chemo and is seeing her peach fuzz grow in; she is also looking to get breast reconstruction surgery. She’s joined a mentoring program, ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis to help other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I can see in both women something beautiful Clare told me about, “the skills you develop to cope with the diagnosis and treatment actually change priorities, and might mean there is personal growth that starts in unexpected ways.”