7 Ways to Support A Breast Cancer Patient

1. Be a Part of Her medical Team - Don't Let Her Go to Appointments Alone.
No matter how self-reliant or brave she tries to be, no matter how many times she says "no, you don't need to bother," don't be fooled. Going to a cancer appointment alone is no fun.  Considering the emotional and physical distress that a cancer diagnosis causes patients, it can be difficult for them to absorb all of the information provided by the medical professionals at each doctor appointment.  No one expects you to be a medical expert but another pair of ears at doctor’s visits can be useful.  Also, you can ask questions that she is afraid to ask or simply forgot.

2. Tell Her You'll Support Whatever She Decides.
Breast cancer involves difficult decisions e.g. lumpectomy and radiation or mastectomy? Some women elect to have a bilateral mastectomy (both breasts removed) so they feel safer. These decisions can be really scary for a woman to talk to her loved ones about - especially her husband or partner. 

Listen to everything she says, help her weigh the pros and cons, but let her make the decisions.  The only exception to this is if you think she's taking risks because she's afraid of your reaction. In other words, if she's resisting a mastectomy even though the doctor advises it because she's afraid you'll find her less attractive. This is where you can step in and be pushy. Tell her that her safety is the most important thing to consider and you feel strongly that she not take unnecessary risks with her life and future.

3. Anticipate When She Can't Do Something and Help Or Change Things So She Can Do Them Herself.
"After surgery, I couldn't lift my arms for a long time, so I couldn't reach anything in high cupboards," a friend who's a breast cancer survivor told me. "I'm very independent, so it really bothered me to ask for help. My friends moved everything down onto lower shelves, put my favorite shoes by the door, set up a table by the bed, so I could reach things myself.  It made such a big difference."

4. Be The "Gatekeeper" and Protect Her From Questions, Calls, and E-mails.
When it comes to communication, everyone's different, but many women find themselves getting sucked into "taking care" of everyone else's reactions when they need to focus on taking care of themselves. This is where a partner can step in and be the gatekeeper. "I've been trying to guard her from too much information and from an overwhelming number of "how are you's" and "be strong" e-mails," says one husband. " She loves all the notes and e-mails, but just can't stand to cry once more from the outpouring of love and support, so I read them to her and answer them for her."

5. Combat Side Effects Fiercely and Make Sure She Gets Proactive Care.
For some reason, it's sometimes hard for cancer patients to get their medical teams to take side effects like nausea, nerve damage, pain, and fatigue as seriously as they should. But when a patient is too exhausted to get out of bed, too sick to eat, or can't walk due to blisters, she needs immediate attention.

What is your job? Don't let the nurse or doctor off the phone until they've answered all your questions and suggested something concrete to help. Your weapons? Lots of questions that begin with "What can we do about...." and "Isn't there something available for...."

6. Don't Expect Everything to Be Fine Right Away.
Even the "well adjusted" cancer patient who thinks she's doing great is going to have some tough days. And delayed reactions are common. Many women prepare themselves to handle hair loss and feel strong until they try on the first wig, or lose their eyebrows. Help her choose pretty head scarves, buy some new eye makeup, and tell her how beautiful she looks.

7. Talk to Her Openly About Her Breasts And Their Role in Your Sex Life.
If your wife or partner decides to have a mastectomy, chances are she's terrified about how you'll react to her changed body. And you, and only you, can reassure her that you'll still find her attractive. It may seem obvious to you that your loved one's health is all that really matters, but she needs to hear it -- and will probably need to keep hearing it many, many times over the next few years.
This is a situation where anticipation may well be worse than reality and things will get better once time begins its healing action. Your job is to help time along by making her feel loved, even when you're both trying to get used to the scars.

Adapted from article on SelfHelp Magazine, 7 Ways to Support Someone With Breast Cancer, Melanie Haiken, Caring.com

For more information on how you can support your loved one diagnosed with breast cancer go to one of the resources listed below: 

American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program
   Has trained breast cancer survivors who visit newly diagnosed patients.
1-800-ACS-2345  www.cancer.org

Breast Cancer Network of Strength
Toll-free number: 1-800-221-2141
Toll-free number in Spanish: 1-800-986-9505
www.networkofstrength.org

Gilda’s Club
Provides meeting places where men and women living with cancer, along with their families and friends, can join with others to build a social and emotional network.
1-888-GILDA-4-U
www.gildasclub.org
 
Men Against Breast Cancer™
Leverages the important role of the husband/partner caring for the woman he loves.
1-866-547-MABC www.menagainstbreastcancer.org
 
National Family Caregivers Association
Educates, supports, empowers and speaks up for family caregivers.

1-800-896-3650  www.nfcacares.org