Supporting a friend or loved one diagnosed with cancer? Here’s what you need to know
It’s always a shock to hear that a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, or has been advised that due to their genetics they have an increased risk of a cancer diagnosis. And, it’s natural to want to know all the details. But a lot of questions can be tough for them to answer straight away. They may not have all the answers or all the information themselves.
Accept what they are open to sharing and trust that they understand you don’t know what to say. So instead of turning up the optimism with, “you’re a fighter; you’re going to beat this,” try leading with, “I can’t imagine how you must feel, I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”
Top Things People with Cancer Want You to Know
Keep your cancer prevention, past experiences of your Aunt’s Friend’s Mother and alternative treatment theories to yourself
It’s not helpful to suggest that meditating, juicing, a ketogenic diet or anything else could’ve prevented your friend’s breast cancer. And it’s definitely not the time to suggest that an organic vegan diet will cure them. Worst still, now is absolutely not the time to share that story of your Aunt’s friend’s mother who once got a cancer diagnosis and share her third-hand experience.
Now is absolutely the time to keep personal experiences to yourself and use your ears instead of your mouth to do the supporting.
A breast reconstruction is NOT a boob job!
A mastectomy, the removal of one or both breasts, is a significant, complicated and often traumatic surgery for women, regardless of whether this is preventative or the result of a cancer diagnosis.
Women of all ages are most often heartbroken at the loss of such intimate parts of their body. Reconstruction will rebuild the shape and look of their chest but is not the same as choosing to have a breast enhancement. Reconstruction can take many surgeries before it’s all over, causing loss of sensation and major body image and acceptance issues. Some women decide against doing it at all, whichever choice your loved one makes, accept it. And don’t try to change her mind.
Please don’t say, “call me if you need me”
It’s highly likely you will never get the call. Pride and guilt will drive this likelihood but also their world has been turned upside down and they are not functioning normally. It’s better to be specific about what you can do. Be clear, “I can help you with housework on Tuesday or Friday,” or, “I’m making some meals, is there something you would prefer or any ingredient I should avoid?”
If she’s recovering from surgery, offering to wash her hair can be incredibly helpful since reaching above her head is nearly impossible. A brilliant resource that we recommend looking into is Lotsa Helping Hands, a care calendar website that provides a simple and easy way to organise meals and other help for friends and family in need.
Treat them the same as always, they are still the same person
This doesn’t mean avoiding the topic of cancer, but understand they also want to keep life as normal as possible. Let them guide you as to how much they want to talk about it. Be prepared to listen without judgement and without a need to interrupt with a response or advice. Sometimes keeping quiet and saying nothing is the greatest gift you can give someone.
Being told you have an increased risk of cancer does not make you lucky
If you’re supporting a friend or loved one who has been told they have an increased risk of cancer, don’t tell them how lucky they are because they now have the knowledge to do something about it.
Don’t compare their situation to someone you know who has cancer, either. Yes, having the option to take preventative action is a blessing, but making a decision to have a preventative mastectomy and experience surgical menopause as a result of a preventative oophorectomy is tough – not as tough as having cancer, but not a walk in the park either.
Treatment may be finished but recovery is a long road, showup when the ‘honeymoon’ period is over
Treatment is over, and they are now considered cancer free. That’s great news, but most have some mental, emotional and physical healing to do. Your loved one or friend may experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, like not sleeping well or having sudden outbursts of crying.
If you notice anything concerning, suggest they talk to their doctor. Medications, counselling, and other treatments can help. Also, many women with breast cancer take hormone therapy medications for 5-10 years to try to prevent cancer recurrence. These drugs can have serious side effects like bone and joint pain, mood swings, and fatigue. Know that your loved one might not be back to her “old self” for a while and every now and again ask, with sincerity, how they are going.
Finally, remember what a great friend is, and how you’d like your friends to show up for you if the shoe were on the other foot – flowers, company and a good listening ear – you’ve got this covered!