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How to Offer Support to a Loved One with Cancer

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When someone you know is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be difficult to know what to do or say. The fear and anxiety of saying the wrong thing can be overwhelming and trying to find some way to be comforting can seem out of reach.

Instead, friends and loved ones can find themselves paralyzed and even resorting to completely pulling back and disappearing, right when their loved one needs the emotional and practical support the most. To help navigate this confusing and challenging situation, we turned to Sonja L. Faulkner, Ph.D., a breast cancer survivor and author of The Best Friends Guide to Breast Cancer: What to do if Your Bosom Buddy or Loved One is Diagnosed, for some tips and advice.

Initial Reaction and Offer for Support

There is no one perfect method for approaching the situation. Everyone will deal with the news differently. Faulkner’s advice is simple yet powerful: Just let your friend or family member know you’ll be there to go on the journey with her and she won’t face this difficult time alone.

If you’re at a loss for words, say so. If all you can muster is, “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know what to say” that’s perfectly fine.

What Not to Say

Communicating your intention to be there with your friend is important, but it’s also best to keep certain comments to yourself. These can come off as dismissive and flippant, warns Faulkner. Things like “Oh, you’ll be fine,” “It could be worse,” “Be happy that it’s not x, y, or z,” and even “Just be positive” may be well-intentioned, but can have the opposite effect of what you’re going for.

Instead let her feel what she’s feeling and validate her emotions. Creating an environment in which she can safely express her true feelings will be more helpful in the long run. “You have every right to feel that way” is a great way to do so.

However, slipping up and unintentionally saying something insensitive is a very likely thing to happen. If you find yourself in this situation, just acknowledge the blunder, apologize or poke fun at yourself and move on. Don’t let the fear of slipping up keep you from being there for her.

“We’d rather you hem and haw and trip over your words than not reach out at all” Faulkner says.

Useful Help

Communication is key during this time. Let her know you’re there for her through cards, emails, phone calls, and visits during the diagnoses phase.

When she’s entered treatment, you will want to help out with practical things. Instead of a vague “Let me know if there is anything I can do” Faulkner suggests being specific with your offer to help. For example, “I don’t have to go into work on Friday morning.  Would you like me to run some errands for you?” or “How about I bring dinner over on Wednesday night?” will not only take the pressure off her, it will also make it a lot easier for her to actually accept the help.

When to Pull Back

As important as it is to let your loved one know you are there to be her rock, it’s equally important to understand there will be times you need to give her some space. But how do you know when she’d rather be on her own and when she’s open to having people around?

Faulkner suggests feeling it out: “If you know someone well, you’re likely to recognize when she needs her space” she says. These could be in the form of terse answers, impatient responses or a disinterest in engaging in dialogue.

If you see these signs and feel like she needs the breathing room, give it to her. But don’t take it personally, adds Faulkner.  “As tempting as it may be, don’t retreat and assume that from now on, you should wait to hear from her.  Simply reach out another day.  Hearing from you might be exactly what she needs at that moment.”

Being There for the Long Haul: What to do After Treatment

She’s made it through the treatment and is in the recovery stage. Out of the woods, it’s time to party right? Wrong. Faulkner reminds us that even though she may be happy to be done with the treatment, your friend may need to reflect on everything that has just taken place, or take this time to mourn and grieve the loss of some aspect of her being — whether it’s a body part, like a breast or hair, or the loss of a vision of how life would unfold. That’s all expected, so it’s just as important as ever to keep on offering encouragement, support and love.

A kind sentiment Faulkner suggests during this time is saying “I’m proud of your courage and resiliency” and not rushing her to get back to “normal.” Give her as much time as she needs.

The Take Away

Going through breast cancer is scary and difficult not just for the person who has it, but those who are close to her. Faulkner says regardless of how you know the person, be it an acquaintance, co-worker, friend, or family member, keep in mind that you have an opportunity to make a significant difference just by reaching out. “The healing power of social support is truly extraordinary,” she reminds us. “Take time to reach out often and encourage her warrior spirit.  She’ll be grateful for the rest of her life. “

For more on how to help, be sure to check out Dr. Faulkner’s The Best Friend’s Guide to Breast Cancer. A portion of the profits from the book go to Pink Lotus Petals, a non-profit that provides screening, treatment, and post-surgical treatment to under-serviced populations and those without health care. Pink Lotus Petals is part of Pink Lotus Breast Center, founded by Dr. Kristi Funk, who has performed high profile breast surgery on celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Sheryl Crow.

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