How to help someone with cancer? It’s not an easy answer.

There are no easy answers when it comes to how to help a friend or loved one facing a cancer diagnosis.
There are no easy answers when it comes to how to help a friend or loved one facing a cancer diagnosis.

First it was my mother-in-law.

Then it was one of my best friend’s mothers.

Then it was one of my best friends.

Then it was a beloved co-worker.

Then it was my mom.

In a matter of just a few years, breast cancer has reared its ugly head many times at work and home with me attending more surgical, oncology and chemo appointments than I ever thought possible.

Knowing the statistics, this is not surprising. And I’m certainly not alone. One in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime, so this is a story that is all too familiar for many.

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The statistics are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women regardless of ethnicity, except for skin cancers.

This year the American Cancer Society estimates the following number of cases for breast cancer in the U.S. will be diagnosed:

• Approximately 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.

• Approximately 62,930 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be diagnosed (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer).

• About 41,760 women will die from breast cancer.

With more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., there are many resources out there to tap into for help.

I walked side by side with my mother and my dear friend Kristen during their breast cancer journeys.

In both cases, we relied on all of the support, research, tools, guides and resources that we could get our hands on.

In addition to all of the avenues for support, here are the things that I found most helpful as I endeavored to help them.

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Listen well and listen often. There are no words that can take away such a scary diagnosis. There are no words that can lessen the worry about surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and the aftermath of treatment. The best tool you have at your disposal is your ability to be present, to offer hugs and love, to give a shoulder to cry on and to embrace whatever they want to discuss and to sit quietly when that’s what’s needed.

Take notes, be helpful and pay attention.

If you have someone who is close to you that receives a breast cancer diagnosis, you may be asked or you may offer to attend doctor visits, surgeries and treatments. If you do this, bring a notebook and a writing utensil and be ready to document and take good notes. Many times the patient is feeling lost and isn’t hearing everything or asking all of the questions they can ask. There are patient advocates who can be assigned, but nothing is better than someone who is available to them 24-7 who can help recall information they are confused about. Come prepared. Read up wherever you can. Advocate for them, pay attention, document treatment plans, help with putting together medication schedules. If you don’t understand what something means, ask. Make the most time with each medical professional you meet with. Come with questions prepared in advance and make sure you understand each option they present to you and what treatment options are available, side effects they will come with and any statistics on rates of effectiveness. This is life-and-death stuff and if you are walking down this path with a friend or a parent or loved one, come prepared with everything you can.

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Try to laugh when you can.

This is easier said than done. Breast cancer is serious and sad. Whenever you can, try to find time to keep things upbeat. With my friend Kristen, we had a hair-cutting party with all the girls wearing bald caps. At each chemo appointment, we kept it light and found the laughs. We went wig shopping and made a fun night out of it. I tried to keep my mom giggling whenever I could. Laughter is good medicine. It won’t cure cancer, but it will certainly help alleviate some of the overwhelming feelings and thoughts that come with it for a moment or two.

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Kristen Wicker (front row, center), a breast cancer survivor whose personal journey was featured in our 2017 Pink Paper, invited friends including Alexis Larsen (front row, left) to be part of a hair-cutting party complete with bald caps. CONTRIBUTED
Kristen Wicker (front row, center), a breast cancer survivor whose personal journey was featured in our 2017 Pink Paper, invited friends including Alexis Larsen (front row, left) to be part of a hair-cutting party complete with bald caps. CONTRIBUTED

Ask what you can do.

Each person will need something different. Before you do anything, ask what you can do to be helpful. If they are having a mastectomy or rigorous chemo or both, do they need someone to set up a schedule for meal deliveries for friends to sign up for? Do they need help with house cleaning? Would they be open to setting up a crowdfunding campaign to help with bills and with money when they are off work? Do they want help applying for services from groups like Pink Ribbon Girls or Noble Circle? Do they need help with grocery shopping or someone to take them to appointments? Do they have a pet that needs to be walked? Is there a specific house project that would be helpful to wrap up? Do they need help picking up prescriptions? Don’t assume certain help is wanted unless you have confirmed it with that person. My mom wanted very different help than my friend and my co-worker did. Ask them what they want and leave the ball in their court. There’s too much in a cancer diagnosis that seems out of control, so make sure they have control of the help they are getting to ensure it’s really what they need and what they want.

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Process your feelings and be prepared.

Make sure you take time to get your feelings in check. Take time for yourself and make sure you have a good handle on your feelings before a visit. Cancer often comes with hair loss, weight loss, drains, ports and crippling fatigue alongside a whole host of other issues. Be prepared and make sure not to comment on those things. Your friend or loved one already knows what they look like and doesn’t need to be reminded. Cancer.org recommends to simply say, “It’s good to see you” as a greeting during a visit and to open up the conversation. Keep it simple and make sure you’re treating and interacting with them like you did before. Treating them differently is one more reminder that they have cancer.

Be flexible and plan ahead.

Sometimes a planned visit won’t work out depending on how the patient is feeling. Don’t take it personally and be sure to look to make another plan. It goes without saying, but if you’ve said you’d be there, be there. Planning ahead gives something to look forward to, but depending on the severity of surgery and treatment there are good days and bad. Be willing and happy to roll with it and look to help make the most of the next good day and be in tune with when to cut a visit off. It’s easy to overstay a welcome, and it’s really easy to do it with someone who is battling cancer.

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Stay connected.

There’s nothing worse than being sick and feeling alone. Make sure to send texts, cards, drop off treats and occasionally call. Many communications may not be answered, but the sentiment and letting them know you are thinking of them means a lot. Be consistent and be present.

Feel the love.

Never miss an opportunity to tell that person how much they mean to you. I’ve always loved up my momma, perhaps never so much as I did during her fight with cancer. Tell people how much you care. They will feel it, and it will make a difference.