Breast cancer touches most of us, directly or indirectly. What happens when someone you love is diagnosed, and the world keeps turning? So often, well-intentioned family, friends and coworkers want to be useful but realize they don’t really know how to be.
When breast cancer affects someone you care about, your greatest contribution can be offering both tangible and intangible support. Though not everyone will want the same things or react the same way, the most important takeaway is this: Don’t ignore the pink elephant in the room. Do something.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Bare Necessities compiled the 10 best suggestions:
If you’re not sure what to say, you don’t have to say anything. Your role isn’t problem-solver; it’s reliable shoulder. Always keep an ear open for clues that illuminate what she needs without making her say it. On the other hand, explicitly say that you’re there for her in whatever ways she needs, rather than attempting to guess. Take on the communications heavy-lifting: Send short texts or make quick calls, often. Tell her you’ll be in touch soon—then do it. Work around her schedule, or set up regular times to touch base, and return messages right away. Skip speaking in platitudes, too (“everything happens for a reason”). Not helpful.
Do your research.
However inadvertently, do not expect your friend to school you in the ABCs of breast cancer or walk you down from (your perfectly natural) worry while dealing with her own. Know that cancer is a rollercoaster and some days will be harder than others. Avoid sharing medical advice or opinions and other cancer stories you’ve heard about.
Be extra-sensitive and respectful.
Even if you didn’t before, always call before dropping by, don’t overstay and plan to come back soon to give her something to look forward to. Keep pity out of your tone, take a beat to think before you speak and don’t overreach: “You look rested” is preferable to a formerly offhanded remark like “You look great!” or “You’ve lost weight.” If you’re at a loss when she breaks the news, you can say something as simple as “I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this. I care about you, and I’m here for you.”
Just be you.
Treat her normally—not too much fawning. Be present, supportive and encouraging. Never assume it’s okay to share her story with anyone else. And while it sounds obvious, now more than ever, don’t be afraid to hug or touch your friend! She may be at the fore of your thoughts, but her mind is elsewhere; she may take awhile getting back to you. Don’t disappear.
Do the things you’ve always done together.
A perfect way to pitch in where others can’t is to take her mind off her diagnosis by having some fun. If she’s up for a manicure or a walk in the park, have at it.
Pick up some of the slack.
Thoughtful gestures mean a lot, so bring by her favorites, prep meals, help out around her house, do her shopping, drive her kids around. Volunteer to be someone she can count on to sit with her during chemo, send thank-you notes on her behalf or maintain a care page online (where people can sign up to receive updates without checking in with her individually all the time). Coordinate with your circle to send a bunch of uplifting cards. Whatever it is, if you say you’ll do something, follow through.
Become an advocate.
You can volunteer to attend doctors’ appointments and take notes so she can process better and verify what she’s hearing from someone whose mind is a bit less overwhelmed.
Stay the course.
Around diagnosis, it seems, everyone turns up—but support can flag as time passes. Sure, life gets busy, and there’s a new normal, but one of the best things you can do is to show up consistently.
Coordinate with her caregiver.
It can be incredibly helpful to relieve him or her for a few hours when you can swing it, or take care of the errands for them on the regular.
Help make life a little more pleasant.
Cancer survivors have suggested the following make great pick-me-ups: plush or silly socks, hats or pretty scarves, pajamas, bathrobes, a blanket and nice pillow, fancy soaps and lotions, favorite snacks, a gift certificate for a massage or to her favorite restaurant, funny movies, an e-reader or gift card to buy books, a journal—even a stuffed animal. And of course a charitable donation in her honor is always appreciated.
For information or support, the American Cancer Society is available 24/7 at 800-227-2345 or cancer.org.