How to Really Help a Friend Who’s Just Been Diagnosed with Breast Cancer


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There’s no road map for someone diagnosed with breast cancer. And even with a good prognosis, it can be an unimaginably frightening time.

To be the best friend possible to a friend who isn’t even your best one, you can do a few small things that have the potential to help her enormously.

Do something. Anything.

Send over a cleaning service. Drop off a pretty mug with a supply of her favorite tea or coffee. Buy her a cozy blanket to wrap herself up in. Email a gift certificate to a local pizza joint or hair salon (surgical drains are sewn in following a mastectomy, which means no showering until they’re removed — and a professional wash and blow-dry can be heavenly).

Just don’t ask her what she needs or tell her to tell you what you can do.

What she really doesn’t need is to have to ask you for something, including directions and instructions to the nonexistent guide to making her better.

Forgive her.

Let it go if she doesn’t respond to a text message, return a phone call or rejects your invitation for lunch. Forgive her if she doesn’t write a thank you note for the kind and thoughtful thing you did for her without asking. She may be on pain medicine that has impaired her memory. She may be bogged down by doctors’ appointments, insurance queries, and her new, challenging, and frightening reality. She simply may not get back to you or properly acknowledge your sweet gift. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate it.

Whatever you’ve done for her surely made her smile, even if she is isn’t heaping gratitude on you. Remember: This isn’t about you; this is just one of those times where you have to give and expect nothing in return.

Read it. Memorize it. Do it. The rules are simple:

“The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, ‘Life is unfair’ and ‘Why me?’ That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.”

Help to make her comfortable.

Here’s a list of concrete things that have helped ease many women following their mastectomies:

  • Extra-large button down shirts or sweatshirts with a zip, because she’ll likely have a hard time raising her arms to take her clothes on and off.
  • Specialty camisoles exist with inside pockets intended to hold post-surgical drains (this one is especially good). Safety pins will also do the trick to keep drains tucked by her side. Post-surgical grains can be gross, uncomfortable and inconvenient, so having clothing designed to make it a little less bad can go a long way towards helping her feel a little better.
  • It’ll be some time before she can sleep on her stomach again, which means if side- or back-sleeping is an issue for her, she should consider investing in a bed wedge pillow. That, along with regular-size pillows for under each arm (and possibly one for under her knees) could help aid her in resting.
  • Set up a meal train. Planned meals are a great way for extended family and friends to help out. Even if she’s not eating much, knowing her family is fed can alleviate some of her anxiety. People dropping off random meals are well-meaning, if not necessarily helpful. After all, a refrigerator can only hold so many lasagnas. You can specify her family’s food allergies or aversions on the website, plus what kind of meals they prefer, the best time of day to drop it off, and how often they want to receive food (they may be happy eating leftovers on many nights). Ask people delivering homemade food to put it in containers that don’t need to be returned, along with a note on re-heating instructions and listing all ingredients.

Be a friend and listen.

You’re not expected to have any or even some of the answers. She’s not asking you to fix her emotions or heal her cancer. Just hear her and acknowledge her journey.

Make the offer.

Offer to drive her to doctors’ appointments. To the grocery store. Offer to sit with her during chemo or wait outside the room during radiation. Tell her you’ll even just sit downstairs on the couch while she naps in case she needs anything when she wakes up.

Take her kids.

Pick up her kids from school. Take her kids for dinner. Spend some time with her kids on a weekend afternoon. Do something fun with them! She may not be able to get out to a movie with them, take them swimming, or help with a school project or crafts activity — but she’ll take enormous comfort in knowing they’re able to go out and forget about the sad stuff for a while with someone they know.

Please don’t …

… give her medical advice. Even if you’re a doctor. Even if you’re an oncologist (unless you’re her oncologist).

… tell her stories about a friend/parent/sibling/your mailman’s cousin who died from what she has. Just don’t.

… tell her she looks good because she’s gotten thinner. Chances are strong she’s experiencing nausea or chemo mouth and simply can’t eat anything. Cancer is not a weight-loss plan to be wished on anyone. She’d give anything to be heavier and cancer-free than skinny and sick.

Get your mammogram.

Don’t make her worry about you. Let her serve as your warning that all women — even those with no lump or family history of breast cancer — need to do regular self-exams and talk to their doctor about the many risk factors that exist for breast cancer.

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