Friday, 17 October 2014

Dos and Don't When Your Loved One has Breast Cancer

So, you've just found out that a friend or relative has breast cancer and you want to help but you have no idea what to say or do.  Don't worry, you are not alone.  It isn't easy.  But don't let that put you off: your loved one needs you now more than ever before.  We've been lucky to have been on the receiving end of fantastic support so far (and only a few clangers) so here are my dos and don'ts, based on what people got right...and what they got wrong.

1. First step, say something,  don't just pretend it isn't happening.   Yes, I'm afraid sometimes when people just don't know what to say, they drop out of touch altogether.  And yet a few carefully chosen words from you can make all the difference.  One of my friends is hopeless at emailing because she finds it difficult to express herself when she writes.  So she went on a quest to find a card with the 'right' words in it - three cards later she concluded, 'there is none.'  So she simply wrote: 'I've been thinking about you a lot.  I'm sending you good thoughts, positive vibes and a big hug.  Stay strong!  I'm here if you need a shoulder to cry on!  Good luck.  I know it is scary for you.'  How perfect is that?

2.  But don't say too much...and be prepared for a tongue lashing if you do.  Okay so it's important to say something but be aware that, especially in the early days, it's really easy to say the wrong thing.  Don't tell your loved one that you understand what they are going through.  You don't.  Even if you have experienced something similar, everyone reacts differently.  And DEFINITELY don't say you understand because you once had a bad mammogram result that turned out to be ok.  This isn't even in the same ballpark as getting a cancer diagnosis.  Do share your experiences if they are relevant but be wary about offering advice until your loved one is ready for it.  And if they get really mad because you said the wrong thing, just take the tongue lashing and tell them that you are sorry and you love them.  Honestly, they are not really angry with you.

3. Listen.  And then do some more listening.  Especially in the early days, your loved one might need talk it out over and over and again.  You don't have to fix things, just listen.  And then, with alarming suddenness, they might have had enough and desperate to talk about anything ELSE but the cancer.  So be prepared to chat about other things too.
3. Offer stories with caution.  It's nice to hear about so-and-so who had breast cancer and was just fine after a little lumpectomy and radiotherapy.  But it can get quite irritating when it's the tenth story you've heard along the same lines and your breast cancer has spread to your  lymph nodes and the MRI showed something that might be malignant on your liver.  There is breast cancer and there is breast cancer!  On the other hand, whatever you do, don't share stories about people who died from cancer (oh yes, it happens...).

4.  And the same thing for connections.  Your aunt's friend's neighbour once had breast cancer.  Wait, maybe it was skin cancer.   But it's got to be the same sort of thing, right?  You can put them in touch so they can help each other!  Oh please.   Have you any idea how many people I've been put in touch with who have nothing at all in common with me except they once had some brush with cancer?  Now, I'm not saying never do it.  Again, especially at the beginning, your loved one might have loads of questions and someone who has had genuinely similar experiences might be able to help.  Even better if they have something else in common; one of my connections was pure gold, linking me with another mum who had just finished identical treatment before she arrived in Brussels and had a daughter in the same class as my daughter.  Just make sure that it really is a good fit and will be welcomed by both sides - people who have been through it don't always want to relive it either.

4.  Offer to help.  Actually, people are very good at offering to help but it isn't easy for your loved one to say yes.  Of course you can ask what she needs, but she might have no idea what to ask for in the early days.  Make it easier by being specific: instead of a general offer ('Let me know what I can do to help'),  try and think what you would need in her shoes ('Can I pick the kids up from school for you on chemo day?' or 'Would you like company at the hospital?').   I found that meals delivered to us for the week after chemo were a huge help but I'd have been far too embarrassed to ask people to do that for me.  So a friend stepped in and organised a rota for me.  So, ask your loved one if they already have a rota.  If they do, join it.  If they don't, start one.

5. If you live too far away to deliver a meal, you can still send comfort.  Many of my dearest friends live far away and cannot help me in practical ways.  And yet they have still found ways to carry me through it through messages and things that arrive in the post.  They've sent me four leafed clovers, soothing music to listen to in hospital, a scarf to wear on my baldie head, a stone painted with the word 'courage', my favourite tea and lists of prayers that are being said on my behalf...

6. Stick with it.  We were overwhelmed by a tsunami of messages in the early days which was great, that was when we needed it most.  But cancer treatment is a long course.  It's not easy to keep holding someone's hand all the way through chemo and radiotherapy over a period of months, or maybe longer, and yet your loved one may need support more than ever near the end of treatment as she gets weaker.

7. Last but by no means least, don't forget the rest of the family.   I find that most people focus on me and sometimes ask how the kids are coping.   Only occasionally does anyone ask after my husband and then usually it's in conversation with me, not with him.  It is, perhaps, inevitable in the majority of cases like mine when the wife has breast cancer and the husband is the main carer - women tend to have much better support networks than men.  But the burden is heavy on them too so, if you can, ask him how he is coping too.

The amazing support we have received from friends and family has buoyed me up and enabled me to get this far with a smile still on my face.  It might not be easy to find the right thing to say but it's well worth the effort ...because you could make all the difference.  Good luck!

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