When a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s natural for people to have a desire to help. Often, they don’t know what to do or where to begin, but making the choice to walk alongside the loved one is the first and most important step. A willingness to show up and partner in the journey will prove valuable not only to the patient, but to the loved one, too.
For the person diagnosed with cancer, there will be many aspects of their fight that they’ll want to keep private, but there are also some things they’ll want you to understand. It may be difficult for those thoughts to be expressed verbally, but if you pay attention and listen carefully, you may learn valuable clues by things that go unsaid. More often than not, however, it’s best not to assume. As you offer your love and support, learn to do it tenderly and without hovering.
As someone who’s experienced the rigors of breast cancer, I’d like to share about my experience and how I felt during my journey.
As friends and family expressed a desire to assist me, at times, it became overwhelming. While I appreciated their love and support, I realized an important fact: If I didn’t set some boundaries, things were quickly going to get out of hand. It was important to me not to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I thought carefully about how to proceed. As I considered and set boundaries, they helped guide caring family members while offering the privacy I needed.
It’s OK to accept help. At first, it was hard to learn to accept offers of help. Being a self-sufficient, self-reliant person, I had to learn to let go of control and take the offers as they came. As I did this, I also learned it was important to release expectations. Each person offering to help was different. Each one was gifted in a unique way. The person with the gift of mercy was the one was most apt to understand me on the days I just needed a shoulder to cry on while the one with the gift of service was better at helping in more practical ways. Learning to balance their offers became a sweet dance of sorts where I learned to receive as the helper learned best how to give.
Misery loves company. One of the most important needs I had was wanting someone to be present. It gave me such comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in my suffering, but I quickly learned it was important to choose offers of company from those who weren’t too overbearing. It helped knowing I had the choice and could set time limits on visits. Adjusting visits according to my energy level became paramount.
Offer a listening ear. A listening ear was crucial to my mental health. At times, I wanted to be able to talk with someone and express my emotions. Sometimes I was in a weepy mood and other times I was frustrated. I needed someone who was able to accept my feelings at face value. I didn’t need someone who was going to try to fix me. It wasn’t necessary for the person to come to the hospital or my home, a phone visit worked just fine. In fact, it was often more convenient and allowed me the opportunity to take off my brave face without the person knowing.
Let’s not always talk about my health. Another way my caring friends and family could help was by understanding that I didn’t always want to talk about breast cancer. Instead of falling into the trap of focusing on the disease, I had to train them to realize it was OK to ask me other questions about life in general. Just because I had cancer didn’t mean my life was over. I was still interested in what was going on in the world and enjoyed talking about current events. I also wanted to hear about their news!
My family needs encouragement, too. Not only did I need support, my husband and grown children did, too. Cancer was new to us and we didn’t quite know what to expect. One of the most valuable things friends offered during my illness was preparing meals for my family or purchasing gift cards for local restaurants. Since there were many days when I didn’t feel like cooking, these practical gifts of love came in handy. Cards, phone calls and letters of encouragement also meant a lot. Those were little ways people who lived far away could help.
Please respect my private time. There were many challenging days just after surgery or as I was in the midst of treatment. During those times, we declined offers of help and apologized in advance. It was important to take one day at a time without committing to a visit we weren’t sure we’d be able to keep. Though they weren’t always understood, our boundaries were usually respected.
In general, the love and support received during my bout with breast cancer was perfect. It seemed every visit, every call, every offer of help came at just the right time. Very rarely did we have helpers overlapping in their giving of time. We were grateful for each person who made the choice to partner with us.
As with every illness, circumstances will vary. For the person wanting to offer aid, be careful, be respectful, and wait when necessary. All gifts offered in love will more than likely be received well. What matters most of all is your willingness to ungird the one suffering with your strength and support.
For the one affected by cancer, be grateful, be gracious, and be kind. It isn’t easy to learn to accept help, especially when you aren’t feeling well, but you’ll be glad you do. It’s also scary for the person offering to help because they may be unsure how best to assist you.
The bottom line is that we all need a little help from our family and friends, especially when breast cancer interrupts our lives.