Do’s and Don’ts for Friends and Family of Breast Cancer Patients

One thing that we constantly hear is, “I am afraid of saying the wrong thing.”  Often times, people will avoid saying anything at all rather than say the wrong thing.  In an attempt to “relate” or share a common experience, sometimes things get said that cause more harm than good. Here are a list of common mistakes that people make, along with some alternative language that you might find more helpful..

•    “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.”  First, don’t say it unless you mean it.  Most women will respond by saying, “Thank you, I will.”  But then, won’t.  If she does get brave enough to finally call you and ask you for help, and you can’t for a legitimate reason, try to make another arrangement.  For example, If she asks you to do something at a certain time, and you are unavailable at that time, first explain why you can’t do it at that time, and ask if there is another time that would work.  If not, try to think of someone else that might be able to help and then make the call for her.  The worst case is that her request for help goes unanswered and there doesn’t appear to be an effort  to try.  She will be embarrassed that she asked, and distrust all other efforts to help. Most likely, she will not ask again.   Added note – if you do offer to help, tell her that you don’t know exactly what she needs, but that you want to be there for her.  Know that she is unlikely to call you, so make sure you follow up with a phone call a few days later to check on her.

•    “My mom, (sister, friend, etc), had breast cancer and she died”  The last thing a cancer patient wants to hear is about the people who died from it.  Try instead, “I’m sorry you are going through this.  My Mom (sister, friend, etc) had breast cancer, and though I can’t fully understand what you are feeling, I know it was tough for her.  It shows that you have some understanding of the seriousness.

•    “I know how you feel.”  Don’t say it unless you do.  It’s hard to know fully, and understand unless you’ve been diagnosed yourself.  It’s better to say, “I really don’t know how you feel, but I can only imagine you must be scared right now.”  It’s better to admit that you don’t know.  It shows vulnerability on your part.

•    “Nobody dies of breast cancer anymore.”  It is true that more women survive than don’t.  But, it is a serious disease and we still lose far too many women.  At the beginning of treatment, most of us don’t know where we fall on the chart.  To make a statement like that invalidates her fear.  Her fear is real and justified.  It would be better to say something like, “I know this is really scary, but they are getting so much better at treating this than in the past.  The doctors are more knowledgeable.  We’ll be here to support you every step of the way.” It gives hope while still recognizing her feelings.

No matter what happens, please don’t make the mistake of ignoring her.  Loneliness is a major culprit in depression.  It’s hard to accept that the world might go on without being a part of it.  When everyone stays away, those feelings escalate and fear takes hold.  Find ways to be proactive in your support.

Here is a list of Do’s:

•    Call often just to check in with her.

•    Find out what’s on her grocery list and tell her you are on your way to the grocery store.  See what she needs and drop it by.  (Her groceries can either be a gift to her, or if money is tight, tell her she can write you a check when you get there.)

•    Schedule a date to drop by with a funny movie

•    Ask if you can come by and visit.  When you get there, bring rubber gloves and cleaning supplies.  Tell her you are there to clean her house.

No matter how long it has been since you have contacted her, it’s never too late to start over.