This year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has a different meaning for me, as my sister-in-law was diagnosed with the disease this spring. As she was going through her diagnostic testing, the whole family was certain that there was no way she could have breast cancer. When we learned of her diagnosis—and the ensuing mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, and radiation she'd undergo—we were devastated.
I remember getting the news and feeling utterly helpless. I didn't know what to say or do. I wished I could save her from it. At a loss, I even offered her health and nutrition advice! Fortunately, my sister-in-law is a resilient (and patient!) person. She's helped me understand how friends and family can best support someone with a recent cancer diagnosis. Here are some of the things I have learned.
1. Stay Connected
Cancer in our loved ones can force us to look at our own fears about illness, weakness, and death—which can make us reluctant to reach out to the affected person. At the same time, we might assume that the person with breast cancer needs space, feels too tired, or is consumed with treatment and isn't able to keep in touch with everyone. These instincts can be very isolating for a person with cancer.
What I learned from my sister-in-law is that she is energized by the support and love of others, and I can trust that she'll let me know if it's not a good time to reach her. Err on the side of reaching out more than you might, and check in with your loved one about optimal communication along the way.
My lesson: I need to call, text, and visit my sister-in-law more and not assume she needs space.
2. Be a Good Listener
In our desire to connect, we might be tempted to share a breast cancer story about a friend, or a friend of a friend, or our second cousin twice removed...you get the idea. In the hope that our story will bring hope, or offer new information, we actually hijack the focus from our loved one and shift it to someone not even present. Remember: every individual is different and so is every diagnosis and treatment plan.
My lesson: Ask thoughtful questions about my sister-in-law's experience, and actually listen to her answers without trying to draw comparisons.
3. Remember He or She Is More Than Cancer
While it's supportive to check in and ask about diagnosis and treatment, remember to see the person beyond the cancer, too. Make sure that conversation also naturally shifts to other topics of interest, and don't stop sharing about your personal life, either.
My lesson: Acknowledge the disease and ask informed questions, but don't let it take up all the airtime.
4. Offer Specific Help
When we tell someone with cancer, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help…" in an open-ended fashion, we might just be adding to their to-do list. My sister-in-law has said that it's most helpful when people know what they have to offer, check in with her first, and go for it. You may need to offer multiple times before the individual is open to your help. Here are ideas that might be helpful:
- Ask for a grocery list or if there are any errands you can run.
- Help make life normal for children with play dates and helping them get to and from school and activities.
- Send cards, letters, and care packages with distractions, comforts, and favorite treats!
- Raise money for treatment and supplies, if needed.
- Offer to organize a meal delivery schedule.
- Give rides to and from treatment appointments—and offer to attend appointments and take notes.
- Help with chores around the house: clean, do yard work, pet sit, etc.
- Plan a party before treatment, when treatment is over, or on an anniversary date.
- Offer to set up a CaringBridge (or other similar website), group text, or group e-mail to keep friends and family in the loop throughout treatment.
My lesson: If I really want to help, I need to take initiative (of course with permission) and not wait to be asked. I can also ask those closest to my sister-in-law if they see specific needs I can fill.
5. Help Navigate Hair Loss
My sweet sister-in-law had a difficult time when her hair started falling out. All of a sudden, there was this outward symbol for how out of control she felt in her body. She couldn't keep her hair and she could no longer hide her diagnosis from the world—she now "looked sick."
My lesson: Find ways to help my sister-in-law make the most of her new look, whether it be with wigs, headscarves, favorite clothes, lipstick, or even awesome earrings. Offer genuine compliments, and make sure that some have nothing to do with her hair ("you look rested today," for example).
6. Lay Off the Pressure!
In our attempt to be supportive, we can put undue pressure on our loved one who is battling cancer. "You're so brave," or "you're so strong," or "you are so inspiring"...sounding familiar? While these are important affirmations, they may also make your loved one hesitant to be vulnerable with you—as though they have to be strong all the time.
My lesson: I need to balance my motivational comments with reassuring my sister-in-law that it is okay to be negative, silent, and withdrawn if that is how she is feeling. I don't need to urge her to "be strong" if she isn't feeling up to it.
7. Don't Forget About the Caretakers
We can be so focused on the affected person that we forget about those closest to him or her. Often caregivers neglect their own needs because they are so busy taking care of their loved one, and they can become isolated and stressed. Lend a helping hand to the caregiver, like asking if you can stay with your loved one so that the caregiver can have some time to himself or herself, for example.
My lesson: Check in with my brother more and see how he is doing and offer help in areas he may need.
Keep in mind that everyone with breast cancer is going to need and want different forms of support. Be curious, inquire, and listen well to how best to support him or her amidst the many unknowns of cancer.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.