Breast cancer: how to help someone close to you
Simple suggestions to help a friend with breast cancer. By Fiona Gibson
When someone close to you has breast cancer, it can be hard to know how to help. We asked the women who really know, how you can make a difference
Try to stay calm
Why? Philippa Wood, 41, a lawyer from London, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. ‘The worst thing you can do is say, “Oh my God… how awful…” and burst into tears,’ she says. ‘When friends reacted that way, it made me feel as if breast cancer was a death sentence – and it’s not.’
How: Someone with cancer doesn’t always want to talk about it. However, she probably doesn’t wish to avoid the subject either. Take your cue from her. ‘My husband and sister understood that sometimes I wanted to talk about my illness, and sometimes I didn’t,’ says Philippa.
Why? ‘You might feel helpless and not know what to do if someone close to you has breast cancer,’ says Dr Caroline Hoffman, clinical director at Breast Cancer Haven*. ‘It’s important to realise that it’s okay to experience confused feelings and not know how to behave.’
How: ‘Be honest. If you’re stuck, then explain, “It’s lovely to see you, but I don’t know what to say.” That way, you’re being yourself,’ says Dr Hoffman.
Take her out (or stay in together)
Why? ‘Being alone with my private thoughts was terrifying,’ says Mary, ‘as I’d start imagining the worst possible scenarios. My sister Sylvie would come round and say, “Come on, we’re going out.” She was really encouraging.’
How: ‘Even a short walk would make me feel much better,’ says Mary. ‘Or we’d go to lunch or she’d invite a friend over. Seeing life going on as normal around me was a huge help.’ Take your lead from her and don’t push things if she’s not up to it. ‘Sometimes, we’d just watch TV together, which was another good distraction from my illness.’
Batch-cook for her
Why? ‘Being cooked for is a huge help,’ says Philippa. ‘I didn’t have much appetite when I was undergoing treatment, but it meant one less thing to worry about.’ Cooking meals in batches, to be used later, can be a boon for her and her family.
How: Find out what foods might tempt her, as her tastes may have changed and she might experience certain cravings. While Philippa favoured plain vegetarian meals, some women prefer strongly flavoured foods to take away the taste from their mouths after chemo.
Put thought into your gifts
Why? To make her feel pampered and show you care.
How: ‘I loved receiving presents,’ says Philippa. ‘Chocolate and flowers were lovely, and I especially loved receiving pampering gifts, which helped me to relax. DVDs and magazines are good choices, too, because they’re a form of escapism.’ If you’re not sure what she’d like, just ask.
Ask her what help she'd value most
Why? ‘Just being there can be enormously supportive, but there are times when she’ll need her own space, too,’ says Dr Hoffman. Practical issues, such as childcare and shopping, often cause a cancer sufferer the most worry, because they have to be dealt with, no matter what.
How: Sit down with her and draw up a list of practical ways in which you can pitch in. After Mary Huckle, a 44-year-old personal trainer from Enfield, Middlesex, had chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy and her lymph nodes removed, her sister, Gianna, came to stay for three weeks. ‘She took the children to school as well as helping me to shower and dress. It was great for my kids to have their auntie around for them.’
*Breast Cancer Haven offers free telephone counselling and access to support groups for carers. For details, or to order a free DVD and audio CD that includes practical tips for carers, visit breastcancerhaven.org.uk or call 020 7384 0099.