- Are you a family member or friend of a woman with breast cancer?
- Are you wondering exactly what to do to best help her through the months ahead?
- Or are you a doctor, nurse, carer or other type of supporter of women with breast cancer?
You’ve come to the right place. And you’ve done the right thing by coming here.
The first and best thing you can do for your loved one is to take care of yourself!
You’re not going to be any help to anyone else if you are not centered and grounded yourself. How do you manage this?
Here are some suggestions:
- Create your own support system– Make sure that you have someone to call when you need to talk about your own fears and worries and frustrations.
- Take time every day for yourself– Give yourself the same nurturing that you lavish on the people you love. This can be something very simple like lighting a candle and saying a short prayer before you leave the house. Or something that takes a bit more time, like attending a day workshop or retreat.
- Write it down– Research has shown that journaling reduces stress while at the same time increasing compassion. It really helps to put all of your feelings down on paper.
- Get professional help if you need it– Sometimes we all need a guiding hand. An impartial, caring therapist can help you sort out any feelings of overwhelm.
Where’s Your Oxygen Mask?
The main thing is to keep your relationship with yourself first and foremost in your own life. It’s like what flight attendants tell us before take-off: If the oxygen masks come down, put your own on first, before you help anyone else. It’s the same thing here. If you are trying to support someone with breast cancer on her journey, it will be easier for her to lean on you if you are grounded into your own well-being first.
As I was going through my own journey with breast cancer, I became acutely aware of how different people responded to me in different ways. Here are some excerpts from my book that showcase two people who really were supportive of me in a way that brought me acceptance and healing:
Dinner with Harvey and Elaine
Tonight we drive to Cambridge for dinner at Fire and Ice with Harvey and Elaine. Jeff knows Harvey from a former job, and we’ve been out to dinner with them a few times. Most of the evening I’m able to forget about the cancer. There is laughter and good conversation, excellent food and cold beer. Then Harvey starts asking me questions about my doctor, about the surgery. I should probably be annoyed that he’s interrupting my “normal” evening out with reminders of the disease, but his questions are genuine and to the point. He isn’t showering me with platitudes about how everything is going to be all right. Both he and Elaine are sincerely interested, but not full of pity. I find this comforting, like finding a shady tree to rest under after climbing a steep hill. It’s like they haven’t forgotten who I am in the midst of the crisis. After dinner, they each hug me closely. I’m startled but touched by this show of affection. Harvey tells me they’ll be thinking of me next week, and tells Jeff to call him as soon as the surgery is over. The gesture and the words warm me inside and out. There is indeed support and love coming from the most unexpected places. And to think my first inclination was not to tell anyone that I have breast cancer! (Chapter 5- December 28)
Lunch with George and Joan
I’m having lunch at Bertucci’s with my actor friend George. It’s so good to see him again, and the hug he gives me is warm and loving. He compliments me greatly on the wig, telling me how wonderful I look, although I know I’m pale and that there are dark shadows under my eyes. He’s driven an hour from New Hampshire, and I’ve invited Jeff ’s mom Connie and my friend Joan to join us because they also know George from the theatre. Joan is late joining us. I see her in the entryway, looking for us, and I wave frantically, trying to get her attention. She looks right at me but doesn’t recognize me. At first I’m baffled, then I remember the wig, so I go up to her and tap her on the shoulder. She is startled, but then grabs me to her in a hug so ferocious I’m afraid the wig is going to fly right off my head. As we savor the salad and pasta, I notice that George continually focuses the attention back on me, asking me a multitude of questions. The discussion meanders into the topics of theatre business, vacation plans, and mutual friends, but every time we wander a bit too far down one of these roads, George looks me in the eye and asks another question. I notice how uncomfortable this feels, probably because I’m not used to such thorough attention, particularly in respect to my cancer. Most people ask me how the treatment went, or how I’m feeling, and are easily appeased with one-word answers. I’m not sure if that’s because they don’t really want to know much more than that, or if they honestly don’t know how to ask. On the other hand, here is George, asking very specific questions. How often do you have to have the chemo? Did you feel nauseous after they gave it to you? So, has any of your hair fallen out yet? I’m slightly amused at his candor. If I give him a one or two word answer, he simply asks more questions to draw the deeper truth from me.
He doesn’t bombard me with these questions all at once, but intersperses them throughout the hour we’re together. As I answer these intermittent questions, I also am aware that I am feeling quite well-loved and cared-for. In spite of my initial discomfort, I now find his questions endearing. He’s only asking because he hasn’t seen me in three months and is genuinely interested in what’s going on with me. (Chapter 15- March 7)
How to be there No Matter What
If you are in a close relationship with a woman facing breast cancer, the best thing you can do is simply to be there for her, no matter what. This isn’t just about being there physically. It’s about being there in mind and spirit as well.
I was truly blessed because my husband (Jeff) was my biggest source of nurturing and support. From the moment I was diagnosed, he was totally there for me. After my diagnosis, he said, “We’ll get through this together.”
When I needed to cry (which was often), he said, “Who else’s shoulder are you going to cry on?” When I got angry, he let me rant and rave without letting it affect his own self-esteem.
If you are a friend or co-worker of someone going through breast cancer surgeries and treatments, here are some suggestions for how to support them in a way that is not intrusive yet healing:
- Remember that she is more than a patient. She has a life outside of her medical appointments. Ask her about her hobbies, her grandchildren, a vacation she’s looking forward to.
- Listen inside yourself and discern what you are particularly curious about. If she had just returned from a trip to somewhere you’d never been, you’d be curious about the details, right? This is pretty much the same thing: she’s on a journey that you can’t go on with her. Ask her what you want to know.
- Stay in the moment when you are with her. Pay close attention to your own feelings. Give yourself love and encouragement. Remind yourself that whatever you are feeling is perfectly acceptable and okay.
- Send her a card (a “real” card, not just an email) once in a while. There really is nothing like getting “real” mail when you are feeling low.
Note: There are lots more suggestions for you in the Bright Side of the Road chapter on caregivers.
Audio Interview on Caregiving
Karen Caterson, of Square Peg People, interviews author Anne Marie Bennett about how people can help loved ones who are facing life-threatening illness.
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