For the loved ones of a breast cancer patient, it can be hard to know how to help.
The Columbian asked breast cancer patients and survivors to share stories about family, friends, health providers or even strangers who offered support through their diagnosis and treatment. What helped? What didn’t? Most importantly: How can the people surrounding a breast cancer patient be of service?
Jump right in
I was diagnosed in May with a very rare breast cancer. Treatment has included a double mastectomy, and I am currently receiving radiation treatments. Last week, I learned that a CT scan associated with my radiation had detected spots on my lungs, and I am now undergoing assessment to determine what the spots are.
During these stressful four months I have been blessed by wonderful support from my family, friends and even strangers. The diagnosis, tests and treatments can be really overwhelming. Many people say, “Let me know what I can do to help,” but I honestly don’t know what to tell them. What I have been blessed with are people who just jump in and do something. Colleagues set up my classroom before school started, my sister-in-law filled my freezer with meals. My sister insists on going with me to all appointments. My neighbor tends my flowers. Friends and family have sent chemo kits. Another friend sends random surprise packages from Amazon. Flowers show up from time to time.
Having cancer, navigating the treatments and worrying about what is next isn’t easy, but I have been blessed with remarkable support.
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Laurie Burpee, Vancouver
Enlist a point person
I was diagnosed in fall 2018 with stage 3 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma. Because the tumor was so large and the cancer was so aggressive, I had to start dose-dense chemotherapy immediately. My husband and I had two children in middle school at the time and managing it all was very overwhelming. My sister became my point person for everything; I highly recommend having someone take on this task. She set up a CaringBridge website where she kept people notified of my treatment and how I was feeling, and occasionally posted photos. I could check the site at any time and it was uplifting to read people’s notes of encouragement. There was a sign-up list for tasks that would be helpful. People brought meals two to three times a week (especially helpful on chemo days, when my husband was at work, and after surgery) for the full seven months I was in treatment. We were also gifted house cleaning services, which was extremely helpful since my energy and immunity was so low. Some people donated money that went into an account to help cover anything extra (gas, meals, acupuncture, oncology massages). I seldom felt up for visitors since I was so sick from chemo, but receiving notes, from text messages to handwritten cards in the mail, let me know people were thinking about us. Several people brought flowers on a regular basis, which gave me something beautiful to enjoy while in treatment.
Britten Witherspoon, Camas
Empathy, not sympathy
I am a breast cancer survivor. It was five years ago now (I am 42), that I found out I had invasive and ductal carcinoma of my right breast. I have no family history. I had no reason to ever suspect at 37 I would get cancer. After many discussions with my doctor and my own research and reflection, I chose a bilateral mastectomy, followed by four months of chemotherapy. It was the hardest thing I have ever experienced, on so many levels. First, physically, I truly felt my body had betrayed me. Then, I had to understand life without my breasts. They have since been replaced with implants, which was important for me, being so young.
My advice to anyone supporting anyone going through this — be there with empathy, not sympathy. Please, don’t say you’re sorry. Please say, “Holy ____, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. I am with you through this, regardless of what emotion comes up for you. I will hold you if you need to cry, and I will run with you when you need to play and be free. I will share in your fears and I will hold space for the processing that needs to happen when your body, mind and soul go through this.
“Please, consider that I will be tired with surgery and chemo, but that I love you and want to hear from you. Don’t abandon me. Text me. Make me laugh. Support me by asking what I want to do. Don’t only talk about breast cancer with me. Keep telling me about your kids and your life and your dreams. I am still here, I have not gone away. And while I’m facing death or the thoughts of dying earlier than I imagined, I am determined to be positive and live the best version of myself through this and after this.”
I had to make a lot of changes mentally about chemotherapy — I am a nurse. I used to think of chemo as a poison. I could no longer think of it that way and be congruent with my body. Before every treatment, I chose to embrace the chemo as a tool to part of my healing. It helped me feel connected to the drugs and the sh*tty way I felt afterward.
Friends, please understand that chemo sucks. It makes you feel like you’re going to die. So please be patient with me, through all of that.
Jennifer More, Vancouver
Positivity pays dividends
Everyone is different in what works for them. Some friends will stay and help, while others disappear. Appreciate those who stay. Forgive those who fade away. When I was young, I faded away in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
During treatment, I appreciated the cards, texts, thoughtful gifts; scarfs, hats, words of encouragement. While a gift of a live plant is considerate, having to take care of something besides myself wasn’t the best idea.
On the few days of feeling “normal,” do normal things! Drive a car, do errands, or another example: A couple of friends visited the evening before my next treatment. It was nice.
Telling people the diagnosis was draining. At first, words eluded me. After a few times, I found what worked. For me, people’s pity was not helpful. I appreciated positive attitudes and being treated with kindness.
If you can, consider having someone you trust attend your doctor appointments and treatments. I had a dear person attend all of mine. She took notes and asked questions that I mentioned and either forgot to or didn’t feel strong enough to ask. With two people in the room, you have multiple ears.
Another thing that worked for me was adding a naturopath to my team who specializes in cancers. Truthfully, some oncologists do not appreciate the idea. Some day they will recognize the benefits. For me, the pairing helped during treatment and recovery.
Christine Elias, Vancouver
‘Stand by me’
Ben E. King’s famous song states “I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand by me.”
These words hit home in January 2018 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So many people stood by me. I was determined to do everything necessary to beat this disease.
The nurse navigator at Vancouver Clinic scheduled appointments with surgeon Dr. (Steve) Slovic and oncologist Dr. (Michaelann) Liss. I am so grateful for their support and expertise. Next, I met Dr. (Allen) Gabriel for reconstruction. He stood by me with kindness, a positive attitude, encouragement and outstanding surgical skills through four surgeries. Vancouver is so fortunate to have so many great doctors.
My husband stood by me supporting and encouraging me, and continues to do so. My daughters went into research mode and were present for all my surgeries.
Friends and neighbors brought food, sent cards and called to ask what they could do. Relatives were always there to lift my spirits. All of them stood by me.
How can you help a cancer patient? Offer to run errands, give rides to chemo appointments, prepare meals. Send cards both funny and serious that will let them know you care.
I saved every note and card and treasure them all.
What not to do: Do not question the patient’s decisions regarding her choices for surgery and treatment. Cancer patients do what they think is best for them. Just support the decisions. That way you truly stand by them.
Mary Frances Duggan, Vancouver