Getting a Loved One Through Breast Cancer

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

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.

Experts advise not doing certain things as well.

  • Don't offer vague help like, "What can I do?" or "Call me if you need me." It sounds hollow and it puts the responsibility back on the patient. "Patients already feel overwhelmed," Babcock tells WebMD. "By saying 'call me' you're asking them to do one more thing."
  • Don't discuss religion. Many cancer patients take great comfort in their religion, while others may lose faith or are not religious at all. Either way, religion is a private matter and should be kept that way.
  • Don't assume your friend or relative doesn't want to be included in social events. Invite her to things as you normally would and let her decide if she can make it.
  • Don't forget that cancer is a long-term, chronic illness. Babcock points out that people tend to be around during the time of diagnosis and surgery, but then disappear. Continue to call or to help out, or send reminders that you're thinking of her. "The longer you can keep up the support, the better," says Babcock.

Published Sept. 27, 2004.

SOURCES: Reynolds, S. Health Psychology, July 2004, "Mismatches in Social Support and Psychosocial Adaptation to Breast Cancer." Julie S. Reynolds, PhD, instructor of family medicine, Oregon Health Sciences University. Elise NeeDell Babcock, author, When Life Becomes Precious: A Guide for Loved Ones and Friends of Cancer Patients (Bantam Books).

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