Every woman with breast cancer has unique needs and desires for assistance. How much help is needed, and when, will vary from woman to woman. But one thing that remains the same is the need for companionship with people who can be available and helpful, but can also help a woman feel that she is more than her diagnosis.
One of the most important things you can do is stay in touch. Many people sincerely offer help and sympathy when they first hear of a woman's diagnosis — but then never call again.
Consider your schedule, your special talents and your ability to help out, and make specific suggestions if your friend or loved one seems hesitant to ask. Be creative and spontaneous as well; it's often the little things you notice along the way that can help out the most — such as tidying the lawn, fixing a leaky faucet or helping to decorate for a child's birthday party.
Even if she doesn't take you up on your offer immediately, stay in touch. Many women do not realize what they will need help with until they are trying to coordinate treatment with the rest of their lives.
Go to Appointments
The American Cancer Society advises women to take a friend or family member with them to their initial appointments to help them remember the questions they want to ask and the details the doctors and nurses give them. As treatment progresses, women often need someone to drive them to and from appointments or to be with them during and after surgery.
Remember Chores and Children and Pets
Fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy, and women who have had surgery may be limited in their activities. Offer to help by doing some of the errand-running and driving associated with running a household. This could include:
- Carpooling kids to and from school, dance or sports practices
- Helping children with homework
- Taking pets to the vet or the park
- Doing some of the grocery and supply shopping
- Picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy
- Helping with light cleaning (or hire a maid!)
- Doing yardwork
Listen and Talk
Many people struggle with what they can safely say to a person with cancer. Perhaps the best thing to do is listen. Your friend or relative might need someone to talk to about their diagnosis and treatment as well as all the usual drama of daily life.
If you like to talk, by all means do. Remember that breast cancer patients still want to know what is going on with your life, your friends, your family and your job, just as they would if they did not have cancer.
Consider Makeup and Makeovers
Women are often rightfully concerned about how breast cancer treatment will change their appearance. If you are gifted with makeup and wardrobe, you could be an invaluable source of ideas and supplies as your friend or relative goes through treatment and recovery. Even if this is not your area of expertise, it could be fun to try some new things together.
Don't Forget Food
Even while battling nausea, fatigue and the loss of smell and taste, breast cancer patients must still eat. Easy-to-digest comfort foods are recommended in the days immediately after treatment. Consider taking some foods that are easy to reheat or snack on for her — and a dinner for the rest of the family so she doesn't have to cook. If you are a talented cook, you could work with your friend or relative to develop some meals that she can enjoy, bearing in mind that the most important ingredient in any meal is the company.
Keep Laughter Alive
A funny movie or even a funny story retold over a cup of tea can immensely brighten a person's day. Your assistance to a woman being treated for breast cancer could be a simple as sharing your smile.
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