Women with a breast cancer diagnosis might be well aware that they will need support, but they probably don't know, at least at first, exactly what type support they will need or how to get it.
Research has shown that women who feel they have the support they need and opportunities to express their feelings about breast cancer might be more successful with breast cancer treatment. However, it's often up to breast cancer patients to seek out the support they need rather than wait for it to appear.
As appointments pile up and information flows thick and fast, it's important to take some time to develop a game plan. Put these items on the to-do list immediately:
Schedule Breast Cancer Into Your Life
Find a day planner that can help coordinate what is probably an already full life with the new demands of breast cancer. Some women like a paper planner they can write in, and others prefer a Web-based or digital planner. Use whatever you're most comfortable with.
Identify the things you need help with and the people who could best help you with each item on your list. If you have a list handy, you will be able to ask people to help in specific ways when they offer. Remember, most people really do want to help if they can — but, like you, they might not yet know what you need. Your list might include:
- Coming with you to tell friends or family about your diagnosis
- Help traveling to appointments
- Household chores during treatment
- Altering your work schedule or workload
Find a Breast Cancer Support Group
Ask your medical oncologist or the nurse or social worker associated with your medical team for information on support groups. Many women rely on their support group for tips, guidance and a place to vent.
If you cannot attend regular meetings or would feel more comfortable being anonymous for awhile, some groups offer one-on-one phone counseling, or you can find chat rooms online that provide "virtual" support for breast cancer patients. You might also keep an eye out for support groups that help friends and family members.
The National Cancer Institute has compiled a list of organizations that provide varying levels of support. Whether you need one-on-one support, support in a language other than English or assistance funding a wig or prosthesis, you can find a group to help you through the institute.
Talk to a Therapist
A breast cancer diagnosis is a difficult thing to adjust to for any woman. Young women have an especially hard time contemplating a life with breast cancer treatment and recovery. If the support you are getting from friends and loved ones is not answering your needs, consider therapy to learn coping strategies and ways to express your thoughts and feelings and to practice being assertive about your boundaries and expectations. Your medical team should include or be able to refer you to a psychologist, therapist or chaplain who has experience with breast cancer patients.
You might also find that family counseling is helpful, especially if you and your family members are having a hard time adjusting to a shift in responsibilities and activities.
Know Your Limits
Set boundaries. It is OK to kindly but firmly tell people when you do not need their help, just as it is OK to ask for help. You will need time to rest and recharge in ways that work for you. Boundaries are especially necessary with people who want to help but have not asked you what you need before they step in and take over your space and time. Simply refer back to your wish list or your to-do list and tell them how much you would appreciate it if they could help you with any one of those items.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Online and paper planners are available from Cancer101, a nonprofit group that offers women with breast cancer help with coordinating treatment schedules and their life; go to www.cancer101.org. For a list of organizations that provide support to breast cancer patients, friends and family, visit the National Cancer Institute online: go to www.cancer.gov and type "national organizations" in the search field.
SOURCES: "Use of Coping Strategies and Breast Cancer Survival," Nov. 15, 2002, American Journal of Epidemiology; American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)
Written by Madeline Roberts Vann, MPH
Reviewed by Susan L. Luedke, MD
St. Louis Cancer & Breast Institute
St. Louis University Medical Center
Last updated September 2008