I wrote this article about how to support a friend through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment for Natural Health Magazine. It ran in the October 2010 issue. Every time I tell people that I wrote an article about how NOT to put your foot in your mouth when talking to your friend with cancer, they beg me to send them a copy of the article. Well, I can no longer find the magazine’s link, so I’m posting the article below. This version is a bit shorter than the original because I removed the names of expert sources and their quotes just in case they’d rather not appear on my blog. Hopefully the magazine won’t ding me for copyright violation. (Note: if this post disappears…that’s why.) But, in the meantime, please feel free to pass these tips along to friends and family members. You can also add your own suggestions to the list via the comments section.
When a friend drops the BC-bomb:
Be concrete. One of the least helpful things you can say is ‘don’t hesitate to call if there is anything I can do. Instead, look at what’s on your friend’s plate and troubleshoot. Offer to walk her dog, pick up her first grader after school, or drive her to radiation every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Cancer is a full-time job. Think of specific ways you can help out.
Listen. Let your friend be upset, angry, fearful, or confused. You don’t have to fix it (hint: you can’t) or even cheer her up. You just have to be present. Don’t try to change how she’s feeling. The best thing you can offer is to meet her in whatever space she’s in.
Be discrete. If your friend chooses to tell you, first and foremost honor her privacy. Ask if she’d like the news to stay between the two of you. If the answer is “well…it depends,” follow up with “is there anyone you’d like me to tell?” This is delicate territory. Let her call the shots.
Clue in. Take your cues from her. If she wants to vent about her cancer, fine, but many women with breast cancer want an outing with friends to be a reprieve instead of a pity party or a hashing out of the latest details. Not sure whether to broach the subject? Here is some wording that can help broach the conversation: “I’m sure there are times when you’d rather not talk about it. If we are together and it doesn’t come up, should I assume this is one of those times? Or will you think I’m an insensitive jerk for not mentioning it?”
Stay in touch. Cancer treatment can be a lengthy affair. Kudos for dropping by after her surgery but don’t forget about her during the weeks of radiation and/or chemotherapy. A weekly phone call or email is all it takes to let her know you’re still in the picture. Note: she needs a friend, not an obligation. If you send of leave a message, voicemail or text, assure her that she doesn’t need to get back to you but that you just wanted to let her know she’s in your thoughts.
Over share. No matter how inspiring your yarn, now’s not the time to tell your friend about your mother-in-law’s bout with breast cancer, your sister’s false alarm, or your Aunt Nelly who died when her breast cancer spread to her bones. The desire to connect is human. Knowing when to zip it is divine.
Insert doubt. As long as your friend is working with qualified medical professionals, do not question her treatment decisions. A breast cancer diagnosis opens a Pandora’s box of difficult decisions: lumpectomy vs. mastectomy? reconstruction or no? Unless you are a breast cancer surgeon or oncologist, do not second-guess her choices. She needs to feel supported, not doubted.
Pummel her with pink. Pink ribbons are everywhere but not every woman with breast cancer wants to tie one on. If she chooses to embrace the ribbon, by all means, pink it up, but wait for her nod before hitting the “send” button on a bouquet of pink roses.
Look for the smoking gun. Don’t ask your friend how/where she thinks she got breast cancer. Unless she has a clear family history (a scant 5 to 10 percent of cases), most women never know, and the question says less about your concern for her and more about your fear for yourself. If you’re scared about your own risk, share your feelings with your doctor, your partner, or even a therapist, but don’t look to your friend for consolation.
Make demands. Your cousin’s wife may be a fantastic breast cancer surgeon but don’t insist your friend see get a consult. If she asks you for suggestions or referrals, jump right in. But, otherwise, assume she’d ask for a medical referral if she needed it. A big part of the first few weeks is narrowing the cast of characters (breast cancer surgeon, plastic surgeon, oncologist, etc…), friends who keep tossing names into the pot can inadvertently add to the stress of a diagnosis instead of subtract from it.