7 Ways You Can Support a Breast Cancer Survivor
“She has breast cancer.” My heart sank when I heard those words. “Really?” I responded, in disbelief as I tried to wrap my mind around what to say next.
Although cancer was not new to me, this news was hard to swallow. Breast cancer was something that happened to other people, not to someone I love, and especially not to this person. You see, my cousin is one of those people destined to live forever. Strong, intelligent, capable, resourceful. She's a strong mom, a fire chief, successful business owner, published author, TedX speaker, and the gritty sort of person who does everything for everyone not just because she can, but because she wants to. She’s a helper. Someone the rest of us need around...and to not have cancer.
Hearing the news set me back. I had to let it sink in.
Within days of news being shared she did something remarkable and opened her experience up to the rest of us with a social media account devoted to her journey. It would be an opportunity for her to tell her story, and for supporters to offer words of encouragement and stay up to date on her treatment.
It was her experience to share, on her terms. Others prefer to go through treatment in privacy. Despite these differences, I’ve learned that when a cancer diagnosis is made public, everyone else wants to know two things:
1) How did this happen?
2) How can I help?
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
In the case of my cousin, it's a bit of a mystery how it happened. No family history, no genetic risk, and she was generally healthy beyond that.
What’s significant is that it did happen, and early detection is saving her life. She had begun to sense that something was wrong but couldn’t put her finger on what. Was it menopause? In her mid-forties, she wasn’t sure if hormones were to blame or not.
When she visited her Doctor for a wellness exam to check it out, he teased her a little about her request for baseline testing for everything. Even though she wasn’t due for a routine mammogram for another couple of years, the Doctor agreed to run blood work and ordered the necessary scan.
A month later the mammogram results came back, along with a letter indicating she needed to return for further evaluation. The explanation was vague, but she knew right then that something was wrong. The next scan was scheduled for a month out, but it wasn't long before she felt a lump on her left breast.
Not wanting to be that woman who just ignored the symptoms, she called her Doctor immediately. Three days later she got in, and her Doctor was shocked to see the growth that neither of them had noticed just a weeks before. He pulled some strings and scheduled a second mammogram and ultrasound for the following morning.
This time the results were clear. Two rapidly growing tumors and enlarged lymph nodes in the arm pit.
Without waiting for the next step, a biopsy, the radiologist advised her to gather family and friends to hear it right then. “I’ve been doing this a long time. You have breast cancer. You’re in for the full ride. (Chemo, immunotherapy, surgery, radiation.) We’ll do the biopsy, not to tell you if you have breast cancer, but what kind you have.”
After consulting with the care team and getting more details she felt overwhelmed by the year-long course of treatment she’d have to face. This aggressive type of cancer, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, HER2+, had quickly spread to her lymph system and treatment would begin post haste.
Years ago this would have been a death sentence had it not been for targeted therapy available today. She is one of the almost 200,000 women who have lived because of this advanced treatment.
Despite this "good" news about treatment options and survivability, no one deserves to go through this. We still beg to understand how it happened. The truth is, we don’t really know why cancer happens. Research shows that everything causes it, and nothing does. A person can do everything right when it comes to prevention, and still develop the disease. Environmental exposure to chemicals and pollutants, aging, and being a woman are among the risk factors that are simply beyond our control. Aside from that, human beings are subject to aging and death. Something that no mortal being has the power to override.
It's no ones fault. It's part of life as we currently know it.
In the case of my cousin, and thousands of other breast cancer survivors, the best defense is a good offense, in that the cancer was detected early. Being alert to changes in her body and advocating for her health led to rapid intervention and life-saving follow-up care.
She’s not out of the woods yet. While the initial phase of chemotherapy has been successful, other treatment remains including powerful immunotherapy drugs and surgery.
Once we accept that the fight is on, that second question arises: How can I help?
HOW CAN I HELP?
When a loved one is facing a health a crisis, we might feel helpless and uncertain of what to do. Do we cry or hold back tears? Do we laugh or treat the matter with seriousness? Show up or stay away?
To answer those questions, at least in part, consider the following:
Each person who faces cancer will fight differently. No two people will need the same kind of support. Ask, “How can I best support you?” Get to know the person’s needs.
Be present, actively listen, and remember that it isn’t about you.
2. MATCH THEIR MOOD
Aim for neither too dramatic nor stressed. Stay positive and supportive. Laugh or cry with them.
Resist the urge to turn the conversation to yourself or trivialize their experience as a reaction to your own feelings of discomfort. Whatever they, and you, might be feeling, it’s ok. Cancer is a complicated burden that falls on the patient and the support team.
In counseling this is referred to as “holding space.” In other words, we make room in our hearts and minds and allow room for whatever our loved one might feel, say or do, without judgement or taking it personally.1
It’s an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved. Be willing to roll with the ebb and flow.
3. JOIN THE FIGHT
Get in the trenches and fight alongside the person or join their support team, if you can.
Some cancer patients have little to no support network. Your kindness and attention may be appreciated, even if it’s just a quick text to let them know you’re thinking of them.
Consider donating time, resources, or energy to awareness and research. Walk-a-thons and other fundraising campaigns generate significant resources to research and development of life-saving treatment.
4. OFFER PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE
Take the person to appointments. Offer to assist with basic household responsibilities, provide a meal, donate a cleaning service, watch the kids or pets, or anything else that might make the person feel better.
An online calendar or social network tool such as CaringBridge make it easier for friends and family to help out.
If the offer to help is not readily accepted, be patient, keep checking back, and be willing to accept “no” for an answer. Check with the patient’s spouse or others who may be shouldering the load of care. Consider asking those close to the situation how you can relieve them as well.
5. LAUGH. A LOT.
Cancer isn’t funny, but humor is healing. Laughter releases endorphins which make us feel good and relieve pain. It relaxes the muscles, stimulates the heart and lungs, and reduces anxiety.2
One poet wrote, “Pleasant sayings are a honeycomb. Sweet to the soul and a healing to the bones.”
Laughter can come in the form of small gifts, funny movies, and deep belly laughs over silly antics. Tig Notaro is one stand-up comedian known for her deadpan humor after a double mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. During a 2014 appearance on Conan she jokes she made so many cracks about her small breasts over the years that her boobs finally said, “You know what? We’re sick of this. Take her down.”
If you need a laugh, YouTube her.
6. CANCER FREE DAYS
With cancer, nothing feels normal. Treatment such a chemotherapy and radiation causes severe side effects that can be fully disabling, depending on the situation. On the other hand, when cancer patients are able to maintain some basic routines around work, spending time with family and friends, or participating in their favorite activities they are reminded of the life they have outside of cancer. 3
Talk about and plan activities with your loved ones to help them feel excited about the things they want to do when the feel well again. Offer to take the person on routine errands such as grocery shopping, work, nail or spa appointments, and the like.
Above all, look for opportunities to not talk about cancer. When treatment takes over every aspect of their life, a patient may feel that they will never be free. Even if the person is not free from cancer yet, focusing on things that are not cancer can help them endure treatment with hope and optimism.
7. SUPPORT SPIRITUAL NEEDS
Prayer, friendship, family, time in nature, and feeling connected to something bigger than us is part of human nature that helps us rise to the occasion when life throws the worst at us.
As my cousin stated, “No one deserves cancer. But our ability to deal with it has a lot to do with who we are, not what happens to us.”
Those with a strong spiritual side feel deeply connected, have a sense of purpose, and tend to be more resilient.4 Share in that with them. Pray together. Eat together. Laugh and cry together. Get outside in the fresh air together. Read poetry or listen to music.
Consider what there is to be grateful for so that cancer doesn’t rob you of everything.
Since my cousin was diagnosed I've watched family and friends sit through hours of chemo treatments by her side, take care of her kids when she cannot, shop for wigs, help her feel beautiful, provide meals, and be in the trenches with her while she fights through the unique hell that is cancer treatment.
I've also learned from her example of staying focused on her hope for the future, enduring with joy, practicing gratitude, and celebrating small wins and moments of normalcy. I have no words for what some women face when it comes to their health other than, I'm sorry. It’s humbling, and painful, yet inspiring.
But what happens after treatment?
In some cases, treatment options run out and our loved one dies from cancer, as was the case with my Dad. When this happens the grief can be unbearable. But cancer doesn’t claim everyone.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for many.
After successful treatment, cancer patients can turn their attention to healthy survivorship. In my next post I’ll share key lifestyle strategies that contribute to longevity and good health after treatment.
There is life after cancer, and we want to know about it!
Thanks for reading,
Hillari Herrador is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach specializing in behavior based weight loss and women’s health and fitness. She has developed a systematic approach to weight loss using proven behavior change methods that result in less reliance on dieting and emotional eating, and more enjoyment of food and fitness. Her goal as a coach is to guide you through the process of transforming your lifestyle so that you can feel strong, healthy, and fit, for life. Coaching services include private, one-to-one phone coaching and private personal training in the local Puyallup, WA area.
To inquire about working with Hillari please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 https://chopra.com/articles/holding-space-the-art-of-being-present-with-others Brady, Adam, Feb 2018, Holding Space: The Art of Being Present with Others, The Chopra Center
2 https://www.roswellpark.org/cancertalk/201801/humor-its-just-what-doctor-ordered Satterwhite, Richard, Jan 2018, Humor — It's Just What the Doctor Ordered!, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
3 https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/day-to-day/daily-routine National Cancer Institute, Jan 2019, Keep Up with Your Daily Routine
4 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1345/aph.10215 Koenig, Harold, et al., Mar 2001, Religion and Coping with Serious Medical Illness, Annals of Pharmacotherapy