By Amy Meadows
You get a phone call. You see a message posted on Facebook. You hear the news from a friend. And it’s devastating. Someone you know has breast cancer. All you want to do is help, but you’re not quite sure how. Can you bring them something? Is it OK to visit? What should you ask—or not ask? It’s tough to know where to start. That’s why we’ve talked to breast cancer survivors and their spouses to find out exactly what to do. Here, these brave and caring individuals provide practical tips and specific advice that will allow you to figure out how to be as supportive as possible without overstepping your bounds. From surgery and treatment to everyday life, these recommendations will give you the understanding you need to help your friend or loved one navigate the challenging road ahead.
Surgery and Treatment
For many breast cancer patients, surgery and treatment begin almost immediately after diagnosis. They face a whirlwind of information and to-do lists that seem to multiply by the minute as they fight for their lives. When it comes to offering support surrounding surgery (from mastectomies to reconstructive surgery) and treatment (both chemotherapy and radiation), there are certain things you should—and should not—do during this delicate time.
Avoid Giving Unsolicited Advice
Whether talking about certain doctors to see or specific treatments to consider, sometimes it’s best to keep your advice to yourself when talking to someone who has just received a breast cancer diagnosis. While your intentions may be nothing but good, the suggestions can be overwhelming for the patient.
“When someone is trying to help, and if they’ve been through cancer, they want to tell you everything to do. But every breast cancer is different,” explains Mickala Hawkins, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at 40 and was treated at Piedmont Newton Women’s Diagnostic Center. Chris Spires concurs. His wife, Heather, was diagnosed with Stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in November 2016 at 43. “Everyone means well, but every case is so personal and so different. Stop before you say something even in passing. I wanted to tell people, ‘We have qualified people who know my wife’s situation. We have a team and a plan that is best for us,'” says Spires, a Susan G. Komen Greater Atlanta supporter.
“Everybody has a friend or relative who has had cancer, and they wanted me to talk to them,” recalls Donna Wentz, who, in September 2014, discovered she had breast cancer at 39 and was treated at WellStar Douglas Hospital and WellStar Paulding Radiation. “I’m a talker, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to hear everyone else’s story. I had my own story that I was living, and I wanted to do just that.”
What’s more, as a patient is facing surgery and treatment, be sure to avoid talking about what may have “caused” the cancer. “People that get breast cancer did not cause their breast cancer,” notes Heidi Floyd, a Model of Courage for Ford Warriors in Pink, who was only 36 and pregnant with her fourth child when she was diagnosed more than a decade ago with an aggressive form of breast cancer. “Don’t ask, ‘Did you smoke? Did you drink? Did you not eat organic?’ The list goes on and on. [People are] looking for answers, and they think there has to be a reason because, otherwise, [they’re] vulnerable too.”
In any case, let the patient guide you as you figure out how to talk about the cancer. “Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but if the person doesn’t want to talk about it, then don’t,” Hawkins states.
Be a Second Set of Ears
Doctor appointments immediately become an integral part of a breast cancer patient’s life, and they often need someone to be there to help them sort through the experience. “There were times when I was overwhelmed. My wife would come to the appointments. She would listen and write down what the doctors had said,” says Leslie Mullins, who was treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, and as a 51-year-old man, never expected to receive a breast cancer diagnosis.
“You need someone there who can ask questions,” says Hawkins, whose mother attended many of her first appointments. Together, they also sought the help of a cancer navigator. The navigator was able to explain terminology and clarify what the doctors were saying.
Prepare for Post-Op Days
Particularly for spouses, Spires recommends preparing yourself for what the patient will endure during and after a single or double mastectomy. “You need some sort of a road map for what to expect. So my single biggest advice for any partner is to Google images and look at pictures of mastectomy healing,” he explains. “It sounds crude, but this isn’t your run-of-the-mill boob job,” he continues. “It’s easier to look at for the first time when it’s a faceless, two-dimensional picture.”
In addition to the scars associated with the surgery, patients have to deal with drain tubes and more during those first few post-op days—and it’s best to understand what lies ahead and what the patient will need. According to Maria Bedoya, a former patient of Dr. Speed’s Global Breast Health & Wellness Center who was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in October 2015, there are resources available to help those recovering with their comfort level, including finding the proper clothes. From loose-fitting shirts that you can step into (instead of lifting your arms) to clothing that can accommodate the drain tubes, there are numerous options available for purchase.
What’s more, while they have their drain tubes in, breast cancer patients can’t take a shower. Spires recommends doing something to help the patient feel a bit normal if possible. “I took my wife to the salon so she could get her hair washed and dried. It made her feel good again.”
Breast cancer stops even the most organized and together patient in their tracks. That person’s everyday existence becomes filled with doctor appointments, treatment days and countless hours feeling sick because of the many medications being administered. Fortunately, this is the area where people really can make a huge difference for their loved one.
Meals and More
One of the first things people do when someone in their community is facing breast cancer is to start a meal tree. Delivering food can help you feel proactive, and the gesture is always welcomed. Yet, there are some steps you can take to make the process even easier for the patient and the family.
“I have a friend at the courthouse who I’ve known for 20 years. Jennifer—I called her my manager,” says Wentz, who is the chief clerk of the juvenile court in Douglas County. “She took control of the meal calendars and arranged them for when I was out of surgery. People flocked to set up their night to bring food. She had four weeks covered and taken care of until my husband was ready to start cooking again.”
Although the food is greatly appreciated, oftentimes having visitors can place additional stress on the patient, who may not be up to talking or discussing the situation. In this case, Spires recommends placing a cooler on the porch for the family, so meals can be left with care but the patient can continue to rest and focus on healing. And for those people who may not be able to deliver food, Wentz notes, you can always have pizza delivered directly to the patient’s house. And there is another option as well.
“Gift cards are the bomb,” says Lynn Wyatt, who was treated at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital and received her first breast cancer diagnosis nine years ago at 40, and her second four years later, as metastatic cancer spread to her liver, spine and brain. “You can use them anytime. You can’t go out when you’re sick, but you have them for when you’re feeling better. And they’re great for anything—from restaurants to Target.”
It’s important to remember that eating is not always possible for patients, who often experience nausea and worse from chemotherapy. In many cases, delivered meals benefit the patient’s spouse and children—which is equally important. However, to ensure that the patient also is taken care of, consider delivering food that she or he can eat. “When you’re in treatment, you can’t eat. Your mouth is full of sores and gets dry like sandpaper. I was just sick,” Hawkins says. “I mixed berries, kale, spinach, carrots, flax seeds, bananas, and coconut water or aloe vera juice. I had no energy, but I could drink that and get my energy back.”
For patients and their families, regular household work gets pushed by the wayside in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis. Assistance with routine tasks could be the most helpful thing you can do—even if the offer initially is met with resistance.
“For someone who wants to help a loved one, don’t ask what you can do to help or say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ I would never call,” Bedoya asserts. “So just be firm and tell the person when you’re coming over. Ask what day will be a good day to come do the laundry.”
“You want to think you can do it yourself, but you need help. You can’t do it alone,” says Hawkins, who notes that spouses—including her husband—often are preoccupied with caring for not only the patient, but also their children and their own work schedules, making housework all but impossible. Throughout her treatment, she was able to receive help from national organization Cleaning for a Reason, which provided housecleaning services for her every four weeks.
Take Care of the Caregiver
“Caregivers have a unique set of challenges that set them apart,” says Heidi Floyd’s husband, Stuart. “As a spouse, you love the person, you try to care for the person, you try to do everything you can to help them and to give them a good life, but when cancer strikes, they’re going through things that you’re not going through. You start feeling guilty about the physical things they’re going through, and you can’t alleviate that. That’s why the emotional, mental and spiritual support that you get are just phenomenal to help caregivers in our own unique circumstances.”
“It’s important to have a contact person who is close but not a spouse,” says Wentz, who depended on her friend, Jennifer, to be that person. “My husband, Scott, was just as overwhelmed as I was. He was a wreck. So she answered his phone at the hospital. She updated Facebook. And if anyone asked, I would just say, ‘Call Jennifer. She’ll tell you what needs to be done.’ Having that one person as a contact was one of the best things we did.”
Furthermore, whenever possible, it’s important to give caregivers a day—or even just a few hours away—to regroup and refresh. “Once a month, the guys in the neighborhood would do a poker night, and my husband was always included,” Wyatt recalls. “It got him out of the house and away from doing the minutia that has to be done to keep the family afloat. It really helps everyone.”
As the husband of a breast cancer patient and survivor, Spires notes the importance of being around a group of people who can listen. “As men, we don’t like to ask for directions. And we don’t like to be vulnerable with other men. But if you’re a husband [or partner], you need to find a friend or friends who you can be authentic with,” he says. “You need to be able to say, ‘I’m stressed, and this sucks.’ This is real life. It’s not golf or fishing or sports. It’s life and death.”
The same is true for the children of breast cancer patients, who also feel the pressure associated with such a serious family situation. In addition to helping shuttle them to school when necessary, offer to take kids on
playdates to the park or anywhere that will take their minds off their parent’s illness. It will help them retain a sense of normalcy. “Get them gift cards to activities or a gift card so Dad can take them out to dinner. All of the attention is on Mom, and there is no attention on them. Doing something like that is a thoughtful gift for the family,” Wyatt says.
No one likes to think about or discuss the financial burden that a breast cancer diagnosis can cause a family. “The No. 1 stress—then and now—with every cancer patient I know is financial,” Heidi Floyd asserts. “One of the ways you become quickly overwhelmed is by the amount of medical bills that pile up.”
In many instances, there are organizations and resources that can help patients negotiate financial services with hospitals and doctors, but the bills—both medical and everyday expenses—will continue to skyrocket. A common option is to set up a GoFundMe page for the patient and family. Yet some family members and friends will go a step further and try to raise money personally.
Hawkins’ friends held multiple fundraisers in Covington for her medical care, raising a total of $24,000. Wentz’s friend Jennifer arranged a walk on a local golf course, which included a raffle. “They gave all of the proceeds that they had made to us so we would have extra funds to help with bills and things,” she recalls. “And people at my job anonymously donated their leave time—since I had exhausted all of my leave for my surgery—so I did not miss a paycheck. It was such a gift.”
The key is to realize that every little bit counts. You don’t have to donate large sums of money to make a huge impact. Wentz recalls receiving a card with $20 in the mail from a high school friend. “It was a surprise $20. She said, ‘I know every little bit helps.’ And it did.”
Sometimes the most important effort you can make is just to let the patient know that you are there. And that can come in many different forms. You can do a variety of things for the patient such as putting a funny card in the mail, letting them know that your prayer group is praying for them, and being a positive source of support while fighting right alongside them. Bedoya recalls, “When I told my son that I had breast cancer, he said, ‘Think positive. We’re going to win. We’re going to fight this cancer as a family.'”
And fight, we will. “Cancer is not a death sentence,” says Mildred Schmelz, a two-time breast cancer survivor who was treated at Piedmont Henry Hospital. “Life can and will go on. You just need to make the decision to fight as hard as you can to live.”
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, cancercenter.com/southeastern
Dr. Speed’s Global Breast Health & Wellness Center, draprilspeed.com
Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, emoryhealthcare.org
Ford Warriors in Pink, warriorsinpink.ford.com
Piedmont Healthcare, piedmont.org
Susan G. Komen Greater Atlanta, komenatlanta.org
WellStar Health System, wellstar.org