How Can We Help a Breast Cancer Patient

In Breast Cancer, Recent Posts by Barbara Jacoby

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month fades into the background for another year, I began thinking about some of the real issues for a person diagnosed with breast cancer. We are very fortunate in this country to have such great medical care available. We now are providing testing and care while continuing to do research to find a cure, much of which is funded by all of the contributions made to various organizations during October.  I know that I am personally so grateful for the wonderful doctors and the care and treatment that I received when dealing with my own cancer decisions. However, I want to take a moment to touch on a subject about which I am frequently asked and that is what to do and say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.As Breast Cancer Awareness Month fades into the background for another year, I began thinking about some of the real issues for a person diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The most important thing for the patient will always be the knowing that help and support is available, if needed, and if you are not in a position to provide that help then perhaps you can assist in finding other sources who are able to do so.”Barbara Jacoby

I suppose the easiest thing to do is to think about what you would want and need from your family and friends if you were the one who received this diagnosis.  However, unless you actually have heard the words “you have cancer”, it is very difficult to even have an idea where to begin as every person will act and react differently. But for me, respect regarding how I chose to handle things was most important to me. I did not want others to know about my diagnosis until after the surgery was over. Therefore, I would not allow my husband, or those at the office who needed to know, to share this information with anyone. In retrospect, that was a big mistake on my part as I took away from my husband the opportunity for him to handle this news in the best way possible for him which may have been to have an outlet to discuss it with others who could provide him with the support that he needed. I should have allowed him to have those discussions but just indicated that I did not want anyone else to talk to me about what was happening.

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I think that most people are willing to help another person who has received such a diagnosis in any way that they can but they just don’t know what to do or say. From what I have learned, it might just be best to let the person know that you are available to assist in any way that you can and then take a step back. Let them know whether you are willing and available to take them to doctor appointments (and there will be tons of those) if they want. At the times of surgeries and other treatments where they are not able to function as usual, things such as providing a meal or helping with child care or just spending time with them is appreciated, if that is what is needed. You will know best about what you can do and what the patient would like or need based upon an individual assessment of the situation.

Most important at this time is allowing the patient to talk about and do as much as they wish. If a patient wants to talk about how they are feeling, what they are thinking, etc., just listen. They will tell you what they want you to know.  Limit questions to things like how you can help rather than pushing them to talk or asking medical questions and personal questions which they would prefer not to discuss for any number of reasons.  Being sensitive to the position in which this person finds themself will lead you to know what to do and say.

For some people, try as they might, when they hear that someone they know and love has received a cancer diagnosis, they will head for the hills. I know that I can’t understand this because it is not something that I could do but I know that it does happen and it happens more often than you might think. My only suggestion is that others around this patient may have to step up and do double duty, especially if the person who can’t handle the news is a spouse, a close family member or friend on whom the patient was counting. It is hard enough to go through all of the steps necessary to recover from cancer let alone to lose your emotional support at the same time. And when all else fails, be sure that the patient’s doctors know what is happening so that they can find a way to provide for the patient’s needs in this arena, too.

The most important thing is to do only what you want to do. If you do provide help out of a sense of obligation, you will resent it and that resentment will be recognized by the patient. Caring and love and prayers are always greatly appreciated and anything else above and beyond that is just icing on the cake. And when in doubt, just allow the patient to take the lead. The most important thing for the patient will always be the knowing that help and support is available, if needed, and if you are not in a position to provide that help then perhaps you can assist in finding other sources who are able to do so. After all, we all just want to be there to help and love each other in both the good times and tough ones.