This article appears in Paint it all Pink magazine 2018.
You may not be a doctor, but for someone who has breast cancer, a good friend is the best thing you can be.
“Support is a strong weapon in the fight against breast cancer,” said Brooke Parker Wingate, director of social media and educational outreach at the American Breast Cancer Foundation. “According to Psychology Today, a new study shows that supportive friendships during diagnosis, treatment and recovery can make a huge impact on the lives of those who have been affected by the disease. It improves patients’ quality of life, as well as their morale through the difficult treatment process. It also has the potential to increase survival for certain women, and those with strong social ties are less likely to have cancer reoccur.”
Not sure how to help?
“There are hundreds of things you can do,” said Sandy Finestone, a member of Komen’s Scientific Advisory Board and a breast cancer survivor who runs support groups. Here are just a few:
Share your journey
If you’ve experienced breast cancer, share your knowledge and practical suggestions. One way to help is to interpret the language of the medical community, which can be confusing to a person newly diagnosed, Finestone said. Additionally, sharing your success — being a survivor — can make someone feel safe and give her confidence, Finestone said.
Live life outside of cancer
“Remember the best friend you had before they were diagnosed? They haven’t changed, just their health has,” Wingate said. “Although cancer is a big part of their lives, that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing they have going on or want to talk about. There is a life outside of cancer. Make sure your friend is being treated the same as they were before. Don’t ever be afraid to talk or learn about your friend’s cancer process, but remember that it doesn’t need to be your only topic of conversation.”
Visit the doctor together
Being a good friend means accompanying a friend to doctor’s appointments and taking notes. A woman diagnosed with breast cancer is overwhelmed and not always hearing what the doctor says, Finestone said. Taking good notes is not only helpful, it’s crucial to her getting good health care.
Saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” or “I’m here if you need to talk” sounds helpful, but really, it puts the effort on your friend, not yourself.
“Instead of having them ask you for favors, suggest your own,” Wingate said. For example: “I’m going to the grocery store; what do you need?” or “When’s your next checkup? I’m available to drive and keep you company.”
Go fish for a favor
Fill a fish bowl, jar or vase with strips of paper that each list a small favor that would be appreciated, such as “pick up the dry cleaning” or “drive Joey to football practice,” Finestone said. Not only is it easy, it lets everyone off the hook.
“People truly want to help, but no one has time to make dinner for someone else every night of the week. I can make dinner on Tuesday night, though,” Finestone said.
Lend an ear
“There are a lot of important decisions that have to be made when you have breast cancer. Sometimes being able to talk them out to someone makes all the difference in what to decide,” Wingate said. “Let them vent to you about how they are feeling, what decisions they need to make, or even the latest celebrity gossip they wanted to dish to you about. There may be times that your friend won’t even want to talk, but just want your company.”
Notes and calls
Make sure your friend continues to know she is important to you. Send brief but frequent notes or texts or make short regular phone calls, suggests the American Cancer Society. Ask questions and end with “I’ll be in touch soon.” Be sure to be in contact when it’s convenient for your friend and return messages promptly.
Let her vent
Women struggling with breast cancer put on brave faces with their families and at work, Finestone said. A good friend will allow them to let down their guard, be vulnerable and show their fear. Let her confide in you. When a good friend says she’s frightened, your job is to answer back, “That’s normal. I’m there for you.”
Small acts of kindness
“Coming over to watch a movie when they aren’t feeling well, bringing over a home-cooked meal, a donation to a cancer research organization (made in her name), a handwritten card or email are all simple ways to keep in touch and let your friend know you are thinking about them,” Wingate said.
Hydrate for a cause
During October, 20 percent of the retail price of the 17-ounce Bikini Pink S’well bottle is donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A partner of the not-for-profit organization since 2015, S’well has helped fund more than 700 hours of breast cancer research.
Follow her lead
“The best thing a friend can do for a friend going through a hard time is to be respectful and follow their lead. Does your friend want to talk about it? Talk about it! Is your friend avoiding the topic like the plague? You better not bring it up,” said Molly Borman, founder and chief executive officer of Just Nips.
Just Nips are a fun gift for friends going through treatment and reconstruction, but the self-adhesive fake nipples can be worn by anyone or are a great conversation starter.
“Losing your nipples is one of the most under-discussed parts of certain breast cancer treatments, and we are all about normalizing that aspect as part of our commitment to body positivity and acceptance for all types of bodies,” Borman said.
Schedule a visit
Cancer can be isolating, but make sure to schedule visits rather than just dropping by, according to the American Cancer Society. Try to arrange a visit when you can give a regular caregiver an opportunity to get out of the house. Begin and end with a touch, hug or handshake. Be understanding if asked to leave. Offer to bring a snack or treat so as not to impose, and refer to your next visit so your friend can look forward to it.
“The perfect gift doesn’t have to be perfect at all. What are your friend’s favorite things to do? Eat? Use your best-friend knowledge to pick out fun things that show them you care,” Wingate said. “The smallest gifts can sometimes be the most meaningful. You know your friend better than anyone else. Cancer doesn’t have to be the theme of the gift in order for it to be personalized towards them.”
Run an errand; do a task
Some great ideas from the American Cancer Society: Clean a friend’s home for an hour every Saturday. Babysit her children. Return or pick up a library book. Buy groceries. Go to post office. Help make to-do lists. Commit to taking her child to sports practice or music lessons.
Show your support by getting a mammogram.
“Early stage breast cancer is highly curable, so early diagnosis is important. In fact, nearly 90 percent of all patients have early stage breast cancer,” said Dr. Dennis Citrin, medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Chicago. “It is important that a woman, or man, does not delay when they feel an abnormality in their breast(s).”
Breast cancer is a cause that is close to the heart of jewelry designer Kendra Scott, whose company donates 20 percent of the purchase price of items in a specially chosen collection to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, up to $50,000.
Alex and Ani’s new Pink Tulips charm bangle, $38, will brighten her day with its rosy hue and hopeful aroma. Twenty percent of the purchase price of each bracelet will be donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Available in gold or silver.
It’s OK to not be OK
“Cancer affects more than just the individuals who have been diagnosed with the disease. Breast cancer places an emotional toll on the family, friends and loved ones,” Wingate said. “If you are struggling to cope with a friend’s cancer, you are not alone. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling, what your concerns are and learn how to healthily process these emotions. “It’s OK to not be OK, but often when people aren’t able to handle their friend’s sickness, they ignore or avoid the situation, abandoning their friend in their greatest time of need. Be there for yourself and talk to someone about your emotions, so you can be there for your friend.”
How to help a friend with cancer
This article appears in Paint it all Pink magazine 2018.