Do you know someone who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer? Are you at a loss for how to act around her or what to say to her? Do you know how to support her as she goes through the processes of a second mammogram, a biopsy, diagnosis, surgery and chemo or radiation? As a breast cancer survivor, I can tell you what helped me.
The First And Second Mammogram: I knew something was wrong when I had my first mammogram of 2006. One breast hurt and the other didn’t. I said something to the mammogram technician about my left breast hurting. She told me that sometimes they do. I told her I knew that, but only one hurt. She acted like it was no big thing, so I didn’t tell anyone else about it.
I got a call two weeks later to do a second mammogram on my left breast. I told one friend. She gave me a big hug. The energy from the hug made me feel like I could get through the next step.
I went alone to my second mammogram. After it was read, the doctor came in to tell me that I had calcifications in my left breast and needed to schedule a biopsy. I was so scared that the fear changed my visual perception. I shouldn’t have been driving after getting that news, but it was the only way to get home.
The things that helped and would have helped: 1) A supportive hug. 2) A shoulder to cry on and a ride to and from the second mammogram.
The Biopsy: My husband drove me to doctor’s office for the biopsy. He sat in the waiting room and read the biopsy information book with me. We talked through the different procedures. He held my hand and walked with me to the biopsy room when they called me in.
The things that helped: 1) A ride to and from the doctor’s office. 2) A second person reading through the biopsy information and discussing it. 3) Physical contact through hand holding or a hug.
Diagnosis And Doctor Appointments: My husband was with me when I got my diagnosis of Ductal Cancer In Situ (DCIS). He held my hand, tightly and told me he would go to all my appointments with me. He was there to listen at a time when I was receiving so much information that I couldn’t possibly remember it all. Having that information helped me to make the right decision for me.
When I told my co-workers, my friends and family, they all gave me hugs and let me know what they would do to help. My co-workers let me know that they would cover for me at work. My friends and family let me know I could talk to them any time I felt scared.
The things that helped: 1) Having someone there when the diagnosis was given. 2) Having a second pair of ears at subsequent doctor appointments to listen and take notes on options available for treatment. 3) Having job security due to co-workers picking up the slack. 4) Having friends and family welcome fearful calls at any time.
Surgeries: When I checked in at the hospital, my family waited with me in the waiting room prior to my left breast mastectomy. I was terrified and couldn’t concentrate on any conversation, but it was comforting that they were there.
After surgery, I woke up to my husband and one of my sons waiting in the recovery room. My sons made plans to stay overnight in my hospital room until I could get out of bed on my own. My husband stayed with me after work. They made sure that I got pain medication and bathroom help whenever I needed it.
When I went home, family members made sure my medicines were picked up from the pharmacy and set up in pill boxes to take at set intervals. Family came to see me for short visits when my husband was at work. They prepared food and helped me get to and from the bathroom.
The things that helped: 1) Someone to wait with prior to surgery. 2) Someone to stay in the hospital room and advocate for pain medication and bathroom trips. 3) Someone to pick up medicine from the pharmacy and set up the doses. 4) Someone to provide meals and help with bathroom trips at home.
Doctor Appointments, Chemo or Radiation Treatments: I had doctor appointments every few days to few weeks after each of my surgeries. I was on pain pills and couldn’t drive. My husband and sons made sure I had help getting dressed, getting to my appointments and even took me out to eat afterwards. They understood that it was important for me to get back out into public, but also respected how tired I was from the surgeries and medications.
My lymph nodes showed no signs of cancer. One of the reasons I chose a mastectomy was because I knew I wouldn’t have to have chemo or radiation treatments if the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
If I would have had to have chemo or radiation, I would have needed someone to take me to the appointments, and to help comfort me through any sickness afterward. I would have needed help connecting with organizations that provided head coverings if I’d had hair loss.
The things that helped or would have helped: 1) A ride to and from doctor, chemo or radiation appointments. 2) Help getting dressed. 3) Comforting through pain and illness. 4) Calling organizations to help with obtaining post cancer accessories, such as head wraps, wigs, and or prosthetics.
More of what helps: If you are in doubt about how to react to the news that your family member or friend has breast cancer, don’t be afraid to admit it. Ask what you can do for them and then follow through when they tell you what they need. If the breast cancer victim starts talking about all the things they wanted to do with their life, help them to make a list of things they can still do. Facing cancer forces a person to look at the dreams not fulfilled and think of ways to fulfill them.
What does not help: Don’t tell horror stories about what happened to someone else with the same diagnosis. Having the diagnosis is horrific enough. Don’t stop associating with the family member or friend with the breast cancer. It’s not contagious and after diagnosis, the cancer victim may need to hold on to those things that are a constant in her life. Don’t promise to do something, then not do it. This is a time when the cancer victim needs to be able to depend on others to do the things they can not do while they are undergoing the process for treatment of breast cancer.