When Your Best Friend Has Breast Cancer
Someone you love will probably be diagnosed with breast cancer. Your support will be an important part of her treatment.
Friends need your support during any serious illness, but these days breast cancer hits home with every news report, monthly self-breast exam, or mammogram. "Will it be me?" With any luck it won't be you…but it may be your best friend. Knowing how to respond to a close friend who has cancer can have a positive impact on her recovery during this frightening time in her life.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), most people with cancer want to share the diagnosis with those closest to them. As a best friend, you will probably be one of the first to know. Initially, it will be an unsettling, emotional time for you both. You'll have to deal with your own feelings of vulnerability and mortality, as well as the stresses of helping a friend cope.
Being a Best Friend
As a best friend you will be there for her during times of hope and despair, courage and fear, humor and anger, and the unknown. You may be the outlet for feelings she may not be able to express to anyone else. She is counting on you.
Best friends know each other's coping rituals, whether it's a good cry, talking, a mouthful of expletives, or temporary withdrawal. My own best friend immediately responded to her diagnosis of breast cancer in her usual manner—a take charge attitude with a dash of humor. As Betty Rollins, a breast cancer survivor and author of First You Cry, wrote: "Cancer won't bestow a sense of humor on someone who doesn't have it, but a sense of humor can sure get you through the experience.''
A Family Affair
Cancer is a family affair, and all involved will ride the emotional roller coaster accompanying the diagnosis and treatment. Since your best friend's loved ones may rely on you for information and direction, it's important to be available. On the other hand, you don't want to hamper or discourage family members from participating. You can offer your help, such as attending appointments and taking notes. Medical research indicates that patients hear one-tenth of what is discussed during the initial diagnostic period, their thoughts instead being on jobs, family responsibilities, and the physical effects on their bodies.
Keeping Friends Involved
As the word spreads, your friend may not be ready to discuss her condition. Going public with her diagnosis is her decision and must be respected. Enter you, her best friend. You might suggest that someone record a phone message that relays updates or asks callers to phone you. As a designated interceptor, you can tell callers that their concern is appreciated, but that she's not ready to talk at length just yet.
When my best friend developed cancer, many acquaintances anguished about what to say and what to do. I explained her determination to focus on doing well. She wanted encouragement instead of sympathy. Some became very creative. One bombarded her with humorous cards throughout the chemotherapy treatments. Another called and asked if she noticed a huge smoke cloud in the east—he had been to Mass and lit all the church candles.
Too Many Questions
In-depth questions and comments about someone's illness may seem well intended, but are often better left unsaid. To a person with cancer, it can sound insensitive, repetitious, depressing, and be a constant reminder of her illness. "I appreciated everyone's concern, but I wanted to feel like a regular person and treated as such. To me, that was uplifting," explains my best friend. "I felt uncomfortable constantly being asked how I felt."
Just Being There
Regardless of a support system, having cancer can be a lonely time. Some days it was difficult for my friend to believe she was getting better, because she felt so horrible. A "you'll feel better tomorrow" false cheer doesn't work. It's better to say, "I'm sorry you don't feel good, I'm here," even though doing nothing is difficult. Offer to be there for one minute, the next, and the next. On bad days, "I'm here" are two of the most supportive words anyone can say.
Kathy Latour, author of The Breast Cancer Companion, described one patient's idea of a best friend, "…Best friends are ones who never tried to fix things for me. They never tried to tell me what to do. They just listened. If I cried, they sat and held my hand, and that's all I wanted."
The "do something" role is endless. As a friend, it was important for me to remember that she still wanted to do things we always did. Although some outings were limited, they allowed her to feel "normal."
Hair loss is a devastating side effect of many chemotherapy treatments. Offer to go along for the wig selection, because you may be the only person with whom she is comfortable revealing her hair loss.
Call and arrange a "feel good time" such as a massage, facial, or manicure. My friend loved her special treat on days when her recovery was questionable.
I introduced "Feel Good" multiple choice sheets and "Just for You" lists as a way of letting her know I was available, while leaving her in control. It was also an outlet for the humor that was so important to her. The events for multiple choice sheets can be lunch, a walk, or an ice cream cone. Choices for lunch may be (a) sounds good, (b) I'll take a rain check, (c) I want to be alone, or (d) only if Tom Cruise shows up. "Just for You" check lists included grocery shopping, taping soap operas, meals, garden weeding, or other tasks she didn't feel up to doing.
Even Better Friends
Shortly after the diagnosis, my friend met a postcancer patient while taking bridge lessons. My friend's newest best friend continues to be a valuable on-call resource in the "been there, done that" category.
Today our friendship has greater depth and has grown outside the realm of her cancer. We don't ignore the cancer, but we don't focus on it, either. As a popular song says, "…through good times and bad times, I'll be on your side for ever more. That's what friends are for."
Association of Cancer Online Resources, Inc.
National Cancer Institute
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
Last reviewed July 2007 by Ryan Estevez, MD, PhD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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