22 Ways to Help a Friend With Breast Cancer
March 10, 2018
Leave a message after the tone
People say, “Oh, I didn’t know if I should call or bother you. I thought maybe you were sleeping,” but I want to be bothered, says Steele. And If I don’t want to talk, I’ll leave the machine on.
In fact, if the phone keeps ringing but the patient is too tired to respond, I tell them to put a message on their machine, says social worker Maureen Broderick. “The patient or a family member could say, ‘Anne’s having her chemo right now, but she appreciates all of your good wishes. Please know that she can’t respond right now.'” If you’re a friend and you get that message, you can leave an answer saying, “I’m going to send you my email and would love to hear from you any time you have the energy,” Broderick says. “That way you’re keeping in touch and letting the breast cancer survivor respond on her own terms.”
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Ask before bringing food
“People insist on making and bringing meals,” says Marybeth Hillard. “I’ve done it myself for another family when someone set up a schedule, but in our case it wasn’t the best solution. I know they have good intentions, but it made me feel guilty that we weren’t eating all the food,” she says. Sometimes people find even the food delivery stressful, so call and ask first. You could say, “I’m making a lasagna and can bring over half. I could leave it outside your door and you don’t even have to see me.” That way your friend can choose if she feels like eating that day—or feels well enough to see you.” Maslowski couldn’t have eaten the food if she wanted to; her taste buds were affected by her chemo. “Someone would bring chicken with no seasoning on it but it still tasted salty to me,” she says. “Then somebody read that the last thing a person in chemo wants is food they’ve never eaten before because they get picky, just like in pregnancy—that’s when they hatched the plan to deliver me groceries instead of meals.”
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I don’t want your tuna casserole, but you can buy my groceries
“One of the coolest things my friends did was come into the kitchen and write down everything I liked to eat. They wrote down all the details like 1% milk and whole wheat bread and the brands I liked,” says Jodi Maslowski. “They typed it up and emailed it to everybody so that when they went to the grocery store for me, they knew what I would eat.”
Maslowski’s friends also made a note of which detergent, cleaning supplies, and soaps she was using. “You have to be careful because your skin is so sensitive,” she says. “I was using Biotene and Cetaphil products. My friends understood that and only bought me what I could use while I was going through chemotherapy.”
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Help make life normal for my kids
Hillard didn’t want breast cancer to rock her kids’ worlds as much as it rocked hers. “If you’ve got pretty young kids at home, you feel it’s your obligation to try to keep their lives normal—and if you’re lying on the couch taking Oxycontin, that’s not going to happen,” she says. With six surgeries in nine months, Hillard had a lot of time to worry about her daughters getting bored at home or missing activities.
That’s why she was extremely grateful anytime anyone offered to do anything for her children. “One mother drove one of my daughters to dance class. My neighbor took the kids grocery shopping. It’s the little normal stuff like that that’s the most important,” Hillard says.
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Throw me a hair-cutting party
“I knew I wanted to donate my long hair before it all fell out,” says Bontempo. So she and 15 friends had a party. “We went to a salon on a Saturday afternoon with champagne, food, and wine,” she says.
Bontempo told everyone when they were invited that they had to tell her that her hair looked great no matter what. “It was my way of taking back control,” she says. “I knew there were going to be tears and there were, but it was a fun way to surround myself with really great friends and mark that I was dealing with this cancer milestone my way.”
And, of course, they all told her she looked great!
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Give me an open-ended invite
Because people undergoing breast cancer treatment often don’t know how they’re going to feel from day to day, an open-ended invitation—for a meal delivery or a friendly drop-by—is the best kind of help, some cancer survivors say.
Steele’s friend, Michel, would call and ask, “How are you feeling? Do you feel like eating? I’d like to stop over this weekend and cook dinner for you. If not this weekend, just let me know when.”
Steele would let him know when she felt good enough to eat. He’d call that day to see what sounded good and would come over with the food. “I’d help with the chopping,” she says. “I loved the company and we had wonderful meals with great conversation and laughter, which really is the best medicine.”
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Pamper me with attention
All of the practical help is wonderful, but special treats can really perk up a cancer patient’s day. “My sister-in-law sent me a bottle of Chanel No. 5, a very soft lap blanket, and a bottle of Frangelico chocolate. I was like, “Now there’s a woman who gets it,” says Vaughan. Pretty scarves and cute hats are a great gift, too, says Maslowski.
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Send me lots of cards
You’d be surprised at how many survivors loved getting cards and thought that they were very meaningful signs of support. “The number of people who sent cards and good wishes—it was overwhelming,” says Lou Durante. “It makes you feel like you’re worth something; that you matter to other people.”
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Don’t expect me to be Miss Manners
Even women who could give Emily Post a run for her money need a pass during breast cancer treatment and recovery. And that means lowering etiquette expectations, says Johnson. Even little things like food being delivered with the message “Now, make sure you tell me how you liked this” can feel like a burden to an overwhelmed patient. “I knew that was code for ‘I’m expecting a written thank-you note,'” she says.
To be really helpful, make sure anything you deliver to or do for the breast cancer survivor is strings-free, says Broderick. “The container you bring food or flowers in shouldn’t have to be given back to you,” she says. If you’re dropping off dinner or flowers, Broderick suggests you call and say, “I don’t expect you to see me or entertain me and I’m just doing this for you.”
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Don’t tell me how to feel
It’s never wise to presuppose how someone should feel at any stage of breast cancer—and that includes near the end of treatment, says Broderick.
“It can be scary at the end of the treatment because the patient is going out from under the protection of the medical wing,” Broderick says. “Or a woman may not have gone through all of the stages of grieving over losing a breast or of having a cancer diagnosis at the beginning of the process and is doing it now at the end.”
It’s not helpful to tell a breast cancer survivor she should feel happy, lucky, or fill-in-the-blank. Better to ask, “How are you feeling?” She gets to call the shots on how she feels and when.
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Don’t forget me when ‘it’s over’
It’s human nature for people to rush in to help at the beginning of a crisis, but having breast cancer is a long road, says Johnson, whose surgery and treatment spanned more than six months.
“It’s like when someone dies and people all huddle around at the beginning,” the executive director of the Alabama arm of the American Diabetes Association says. “But people get weary of you being sick for too very long. After one or two months, you detect a tone. They’ll say, ‘You’re still doing that?'”
The transition from being sick 24 hours a day to feeling well seems so abrupt that it can be weird, she says. “I don’t need food or a driver anymore, but it’s lovely when people still check in with a call or a note.”
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Please join me in finding a cure
Before Maslowski was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s, she’d never paid any attention to fund-raising walks or events. Now she thinks participating in an annual breast cancer walk is one of the nicest ways friends and family can show support for her and help her fight the disease that tried to sideline her.
“A girlfriend contacted me about the walk and said she wanted to do it on my behalf. I wanted to do it, too, even though I was in chemo that first year. I’ve been walking the three-day 60-mile Susan G. Komen walk ever since,” says Maslowski. With each step she remembers how far she’s come and how thankful she is for the support she received and that she is able to now help others. And every walk is another year she’s cancer free.
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