5 things you can do for someone with breast cancer

Whether a friend or a family member is newly diagnosed or in the middle of treatment, they need the support of loved ones. But, sometimes it can be hard for friends and family members to know how to show they care.

Women being treated for breast cancer are unlikely to respond to vague offers of help because they have a lot on their mind and often aren’t able to do the thinking for other people as well, so it’s good to offer specific help.

The McGrath Foundation’s Breast Cancer nurse Pip Bell shares five ways you can help support a loved one with breast cancer.

1.  Special gifts

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference to a person’s day. A bright bunch of flowers with a hand written card that says there are no strings attached and that you are not expecting to see them or wanting anything in return. You are doing this especially for them. The person can read the card or letter in their own time (perhaps over and over) without the pressure of having to be around others.

2.  Learn to listen

The ability to listen, understand and be there when a person needs to vent or make decisions is really important. Your loved one may repeat their concerns over and over again – and that’s okay. Remember you don’t need to give advice, instead acknowledge their situation and perhaps help put together a list of questions for their doctor or breast cancer nurse. Keep confidences and let the person talk about anything with you. Sometimes women worry about things and become upset at night time. Letting her know she can call you at any hour will let her know you care.

3.  Make a roster for dinner delivery or help in the home

Because people living with cancer are unlikely to respond to unclear offers of help, instead of saying ‘what can I do?’ you could offer to take the pressure off by organising a roster for dinner. It’s important to ask if the help is welcome and to call before someone delivers the food and explain that you could leave it outside the door so they don’t have to greet you to collect it if they are feeling unwell. People having surgery and undergoing cancer treatments often feel fatigued which causes their daily tasks to become difficult. You may like to set up a roster for light housework, dog walking or help with the children. By allowing her to have a few free hours it may give her time to recharge and maximise her emotional energy.
person making homemade lasagna

4.  Know what not to say

I often discourage people from saying things like ‘be positive’ as this can discourage people from opening up and venting their real concerns. Another word I try to avoid is ‘journey’. A journey is typically something that’s chosen, whereas breast cancer isn’t. Saying ‘you’re lucky the cancer was found’ can also be hard for someone with cancer to hear. The word lucky is not helpful or uplifting in many situations. I also don’t think it’s helpful to talk about another person’s experience with breast cancer. Even if it has a good outcome it doesn’t offer encouragement and the person has enough on their mind.

5.  Be honest

Some people have reported to us (breast cancer nurses) that the best thing anyone has said to them when they were sick was ‘I want to be a good friend to you through this but I don’t really know how, so if I do or say something thoughtless, please tell me’. Often friends have little experience with life-threatening illnesses so they’re not sure how to react, and so keeping the communication open and honest can prevent frustrations or miscommunication. 

At Bupa, we’ve teamed up with the McGrath Foundation to support breast cancer awareness and the work of McGrath Breast Care Nurses.

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