Learning to Support My Sister with Breast Cancer

Two young women talking about something serious on a couch

As a Registered Nurse Health Coach for Independence Blue Cross, I get to assist our members in taking care of themselves and managing their health issues. I enjoy it, I find it very rewarding, and I’m pretty good at knowing what to ask, how to listen, and what to say.

But when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a completely different story. I felt helpless. I wanted to support her, but I didn’t know how.

About one in eight women in the United States (approximately 13 percent) develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. (Men get breast cancer too, just much less commonly.) So how do the rest of us support someone diagnosed with breast cancer?

Tangible Ways to Help a Loved One After a Cancer Diagnosis

Each person diagnosed with breast cancer handles it differently. Some people might want help with their day-to-day responsibilities. Others might want to be distracted from their diagnosis. It’s important to be sensitive to your friend or family member’s preferences.

It’s also helpful to make concrete offers such as, “I can bring a meal for your family today or Saturday,” as opposed to a vague, “Call me if you need anything.” Here are some ideas:

Food. During times of distress, people love to deliver food or set up a meal train. However, for people with cancer, food can be a tricky area. Many times, patients undergoing chemotherapy don’t have an appetite or need to avoid certain foods. Check with them before bringing food. That said, even if they can’t eat, it may be helpful to drop off food for their family so no one has to cook. Just remember: Unless you’re specifically asked to stay, make sure you drop the food and depart. You don’t want them to feel like they have to entertain guests.
Finding appropriate resources. Some people with breast cancer may appreciate the camaraderie of a support group, while others may want nothing to do with them. If you think an individual with cancer is the type who would benefit from a support group (either in person or online), gathering links and directing them to various support groups/resources is a great way to help.
Support during cosmetic changes. Many women struggle with the cosmetic aspects of breast cancer — such as losing their hair or getting a mastectomy. Something as simple as offering to accompany your friend or family member to pick out a wig, or providing support after a mastectomy, can make all the difference.
Rides to treatment. Treatment for breast cancer can be challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re able, offer to drive the person to treatment. It takes a huge burden off of them and their immediate family and allows them to focus on their treatment.
Help with errands/chores/childcare. Everyday life doesn’t grind to a halt after a breast cancer diagnosis. Offers to pick up prescriptions or groceries, or even asking if you can hire a cleaning service, are great ways to help. If they have children at home, offer to babysit or drive them to school/sports practices/music lessons.
Care baskets. Care baskets are a wonderful way to provide personalized support for someone undergoing treatment. Fill it with small items of comfort that you know the person would like, such as socks, a microwavable comfort wrap, candles, pajamas, pictures, books or magazines, lip balm, or ginger candy (to help with nausea). The American Cancer Society provides some additional ideas for gifts.
Gift cards. My sister’s treatment occurred about an hour away from where she lived, so every time she had to drive to treatment, she had to pay for gas, tolls, meals, etc. These expenses all add up and can be an additional financial burden for those undergoing treatment. One way to provide support is by sending gift cards for gas or meals. Since I live far from my sister, this was one way that I felt like I could help from a distance.
A welcome distraction. Sometimes, people with breast cancer just want a break from talking about cancer. They may be tired of the constant discussion around treatment and medical jargon, or they may feel that cancer is the only thing that people talk to them about. You could provide a welcome distraction in the form of funny books, movies, or podcasts. Consider giving a subscription to a podcast, music, or movie streaming service.

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And don’t forget to offer support on an ongoing basis. After someone receives a cancer diagnosis, people initially come together to provide support in a big way. But often, as time goes on, people retreat back into their daily lives, and support can fall by the wayside. Treatment may be long, and our loved ones need us just as much one year in as they did in the beginning.

What to Say

Talking to someone after they are diagnosed with breast cancer can be tricky. Many times, you don’t know what to say. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, so maybe you don’t say anything. But staying silent isn’t the best answer. Luckily, there are guides on helpful things to say to someone with cancer.

And don’t underestimate the power of listening. People with breast cancer experience a wide range of emotions, from fear and anger to anxiety and depression. Many times, someone with cancer just needs someone to listen to what they are feeling.

Protecting the Vulnerable

People with cancer have very compromised immune systems. They’re vulnerable to even seemingly mild illnesses. For that reason, it’s critically important for you to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the flu, and other respiratory illnesses before seeing them. And if you do see them, think about wearing a mask. Because an infection that might only make you moderately ill could be much more dangerous for them.