How to Support Breast Cancer Patients

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Your loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer. You can tell the treatment plan is taking its toll, but what do you do? How can you help a loved one through their breast cancer chemo treatment? How can you support this person in the greatest struggle of their life? Four SGNT (Surgical Group of North Texas) patients have lived this life with a support system by their side. Read on, as they share with us what was of most value to them.  

Offer Support, Not Answers

When you see someone you love struggle, it is natural for you to want to step in and help in whatever way you can. Make no mistake, your support is valued and appreciated. However, many breast cancer patients caution not to overdo it. Barb, an SGNT patient, remarks,

“Offer support but don’t push. You may think to remove a burden is helping, but it may feel to the person that it’s just one more thing they’ve lost control of.”

Many patients speak of feeling a loss of control. They already perceive a loss of control of their body through this diagnosis, so giving them the reigns in any way possible is critical. 

Another patient we will refer to as R, says

“Be there for the decision-making process. Don’t make the decision for me. Be on board with the decision. Participate, and help me have what I need to decide, but don’t decide for me.”

But don’t worry, they aren’t looking for you to have all the answers. Lori, another SGNT patient, recalls her parents would come over and they would want to fix it. They would suggest all kinds of home remedies or different things to try so she would feel better. At first, she would reply to their suggestions, yes I tried that, yes it’s not working, and it got the point where she told them to just cry with her, to just sit with her, to just pray with her, just let me be miserable. 

In this case, actions speak louder than words. Take a moment to review some of the actionable ways patients have appreciated the support:

Offer to drive them to and be with them during doctor’s appointments

Emotionally commiserate with them (laugh, cry, pray)

Assist in the meal preparations

Assist with household chores

Watch over the kids

Manage the bills

Take care of the lawn

Though the list isn’t surprising, tackling just one of these items can be a much-needed load off of their shoulders. 

Lori’s husband figured out quickly what she needed over the next six months. He would sit with her and pray, tell her when she was being irrational and that was “the chemo talking and not my wife”. He kept her on her medication schedule and had alarms set every two hours, day and night with what she had to take. He fed her the best diet she could have with food and vitamins. He cried with her. He took her to all of her doctor appointments and recorded them so they wouldn’t miss anything. That’s what she needed from him. 

Don’t disappear

A common theme the patients mentioned was the need for the support consistently. Breast cancer doesn’t just go away. Another SGNT patient, Kelly said it simply,

“support good and bad days”.

Each and every day is its own challenge, and the need for that support doesn’t just evaporate after a series of good days.  Patient R prefers a support system of “people that can stomach the sad times and laugh with me in the dark times.” 

Yes, everyone has their ups and downs, but during treatment, those feelings are magnified. Barb thinks it’s important that family and friends know that,

“Chemo impacts everyone differently. The chemo drug combination/protocol is not necessarily the same through that person’s treatment cycle, and the reaction to chemo varies as the weeks progress. Just because the person felt great Thursday during week 1 doesn’t mean they’ll feel great Thursday during week 3.  One type of chemo drug gives you energy, another zaps your strength. Be aware and validate how that cycle is impacting the person.” 

Support Comes in All Forms

Lori, recalls a moment in the treatment cycle in vivid detail. It was “a horrible cycle”. Her side effects were like clockwork. Thirty minutes after the infusion she would get sick, then she’d be in the bathroom and feel awful. During this time, she stayed away from her daughter and her husband would take care of her or she would go with Lori’s mom. At one point she felt she just wanted to die; she couldn’t do it anymore. She was crying and arguing with her husband that she was ready to die. She told him to find another woman and find another mom for their daughter. Their daughter was in the corner of the room, and Lori didn’t want her to see her. Their daughter ran to her room and came back to Lori with her favorite blanket and stuffed animal and gave them to her. She said she had to be with them because they wanted her to be here and she can’t leave. Lori would pray and pray and pray for strength and her daughter would do things like that. Lori knew this was how God would show himself to her, in these ways through her daughter.

Lori’s spirituality and daughter helped ground her during an overwhelming ordeal. However, the support can come in the simplest of packages. Barb reminds us,

“Let them know you are thinking of them, even if you aren’t physically there. My sister and a friend sent me random cards fairly frequently – some funny, some just thinking of you – but they made me smile each and every time.”

How will you offer your support? 

A kind word. A drive to an appointment. A prepped meal. A person to cry with. Small things, that may seem so inconsequential to you. However, it was these tiny favors that our SGNT patients remembered the most. The things that brought the supporting light they needed in their lives. So take this moment to figure out what you are able to offer your loved one, and realize that whatever you can do will stay with them long after the treatment is over. 

Next week we will discuss the realities of treatments on the sexual lives of breast cancer patients. 

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