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Supporting a Loved One with Breast Cancer: Emotional and Practical Guidance

When a friend or loved one confides in you about their breast cancer diagnosis, you may wonder how you can support them during this challenging time. Remember, they are sharing this news with you because you are a trusted and important person in their life. The first step in helping can be surprisingly simple.

Listen

Allow your loved one to share their story in as much detail as they wish. You might initially feel shocked, but try to remain focused on the conversation. Though you may be thinking, “How could this happen?” expressing this thought won’t be helpful for someone who is likely wondering the same thing.

Don’t be afraid to show emotion. After all, you are part of their inner circle for a reason. Listen to their story, whether they share a lot or a little, and let them know you are here for them in any capacity they need.

Ask who they have informed, they might appreciate your help in telling others so they don’t have to.  Keep in mind that they will likely hear “take one day at a time” frequently. This natural response is well-intended, but easier said than done. Asking “What can I do for you right now?”  is a more supportive question that keeps the focus on the present.

Practical support

This involves assisting with daily activities such as cooking, laundry, errands, and transportation. If they are open to it, coordinate these tasks with others in their inner circle and community. Those diagnosed with cancer or other chronic illnesses that require frequent medical appointments often hesitate to ask for help, for fear of being a burden. Maintaining normalcy is important to them.

  • Start a meal train: Preparing dinner can be a daunting task, especially with frequent doctor appointments and treatments.

  • Gift cards: Consider giving gift cards for Amazon, gas, Visa, restaurants, grocery stores, or retail stores. These can significantly ease their financial burden.

  • Childcare: Provide care for young children who need entertainment and supervision while their parent is healing or in treatment. This period can be tough on children too, and knowing they are in trusted hands provides immense peace of mind for the parent. This can also include helping with transportation to sports and after-school activities, allowing parents to keep their children’s lives as unaffected as possible.

Educate yourself

Upon being diagnosed with breast cancer, a patient quickly becomes an expert in their specific type of cancer—a role they never wanted. With information from Google, TikTok, and other social media platforms at our fingertips, patients can access a wealth of knowledge, both accurate and false. This has its pros and cons.

Breast cancer type, pathology, tumor markers, and treatment options vary from person to person. For example, if your loved one is diagnosed with hormone-positive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or stage 0 breast cancer, they will likely have already researched statistics, treatments, and advice from others who have experienced the same, even before meeting with their surgeon. If you also do your research, they will appreciate the knowledge and insight you bring to the conversation.

Many patients feel like they are speaking another language when explaining their situation; understanding and contributing to the conversation shows great thoughtfulness and helps them feel less alone on their journey.

However, use caution when sharing personal opinions based on your research. The internet often suggests solutions, cures, or remedies for everything. Once your loved one has decided on a treatment plan with their medical team, it’s best to support them in their informed decision. For example, offer to join them in a strength class at the YMCA because you read that weight-bearing exercises are beneficial for bone and joint health, which can help mitigate the side effects of their anti-hormone medication.

Supporting a loved one with breast cancer requires listening, empathy, practical assistance, and education. Your support is invaluable in more ways than you know. Together you will navigate this journey and emerge stronger.

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About the Author
Dr. Lauren Mackie, DNP, FNP-C is a freelance medical writer, specializing in breast health. She is also a doctoral-prepared family nurse practitioner in oncologic breast surgery. She can be reached at lauren@mackiemedicalwriting.com for inquiries. Opinions are her own, and should not be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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