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Getting a Loved One Through Breast Cancer

Knowing the dos and don'ts of helping someone you love with breast cancergoes a long way.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

When someone close to you has breast cancer, it's natural to try to do whatever you can to make her life easier. But the things you think are helpful aren't necessarily the things your loved one really wants or needs. According to a recent study in the journal Health Psychology, unwanted forms of support can actually have negative effects on a breast cancer patient in terms of her psychological adjustment to the illness.

Of course, what is and isn't desirable varies from person to person. One patient may be delighted by daily visits, while another will find them intrusive.

That said, there are a few general dos to keep in mind:

  • Do try to have an upfront discussion with your friend or relative about what she would and wouldn't find helpful. Ideally, this conversation should take place in the presence of a professional counselor, who will keep emotions from getting in the way. "If you don't talk about what the patient wants first, it becomes a trial-and-error process, with the potential for misunderstanding and hurt feelings during a time when a woman could benefit from support that matches her needs," says Julie S. Reynolds, PhD. Reynolds, an instructor in the family medicine department at Oregon Health and Sciences University, is co-author of the Health Psychology study.
  • Do offer three specific ways in which you can help and have her choose one (or more if you have the time). Offer things that you're good at and that are realistic given your other commitments. You might offer to do her yard work, or pick her kids up from school, or cook her dinner a few nights a week.
  • Do provide information on treatments and clinical trials if you feel so inclined, but be very low-key about it. Elise NeeDell Babcock, author of When Life Becomes Precious, recommends handing the information to your loved one in a folder and letting her take it from there. "Don't ever ask her if she's read it," says Babcock. "So much control is lost when a person has cancer. It's important for her to feel in control, so pressuring her to read what you've found is a bad idea." Furthermore, when people urge cancer patients to try alternative therapies or special diets, it can undermine their confidence in the treatment they're on.
  • Do realize that people need space. While no one wants to be abandoned when they're ill, cancer patients can only handle a certain amount of socializing, given that surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are very tiring. Ask if she wants company; don't just knock on the door.
  • Do offer to accompany her to doctor's visits or treatments. Just being there makes the experience less lonely, but you can also help by writing down what the doctor is saying (in case she forgets later) or by writing a list of questions for the doctor before the appointment.