It’s October. And that means pink ribbons and loads of reminders to get your mammogram done.
It also means approximately 20,555 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this month alone. You may know someone who receives the news. That someone may be your best friend and you may be part of a close circle of intimate friends and family members who know about her diagnosis.
I know you’re devastated. And I know you're hurting.
This news is a sucker punch to reality and your life loving friend. One day you’re laughing over martinis and the next you can’t catch your breath.
In a few months it will be 13 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I’ve been cancer free, happy, and healthy since I finished treatment in 2004. As the one diagnosed with this dreadful disease, I found it ironic that I’d be the one supporting my siblings and friends who couldn’t cope with my diagnosis.
Recently a friend of mine called me because her best friend of twenty some odd years had just gotten the news she had breast cancer. My friend sounded distraught. She told she didn’t know what to do and asked me how she could best support her bestie.
I shared with my friend the following ways she could best support her bestie:
- Your friend has breast cancer. You don’t. Don’t make her diagnosis about you.
- Your friend needs your support not your pity.
- Your bestie needs to make decisions that are right for her, not you.
- Unless you’re an oncologist or work directly with cancer patients in the medical field, you are not an expert in cancer. Do not give her medical advice.
- If she asks you to go to a doctor’s appointment with her, be a good note taker. Medical information is a lot to absorb, so remain strong, silent, and take notes.
- Do your best to support your friend’s medical decisions. They are hers to make based on the medical advice she’s receiving from her care team.
- Gently encourage a 2nd opinion if your friend is uncomfortable with her initial diagnosis and / or doctor.
- Be supportive. You have two shoulders and two ears. Your friend needs to know you’ll be there to listen and give lots and lots of hugs.
- Do normal friend things. Two weeks after my mastectomy, my girlfriends and I went to see David Bowie in concert.
- Cancer is not contagious. It’s okay to hold your friend’s hand, hug her often, and breathe the same air she’s breathing.
- If your friend needs surgery, put together a basket of her favorite chocolate, teas, books, etc. The first few days post surgery can be rough and a few of her favorite things will go a long way towards healing and recovery.
- Chemotherapy is a bitch. Your friend will lose her hair and her taste buds. She’ll be tired beyond tired. Her bones will ache. And she’ll lose her train of thought mid sentence. No matter how awful she feels, she does not want your pity. She needs you to fight through this with her. She needs to know you’ve got her back.
- When your bestie finishes treatment, it’s not the end of the road for her. Being released from your care team is nearly as scary as hearing the diagnosis for the first time. You may think that all is well, treatment is done, let’s go back to normal. There is no going back to normal for your friend. Your friend has a new normal and for the first 2-3 years post cancer treatment it’s scary as hell. Cancer recurrence is a terrifying reality. Every ache and pain will send your friend straight to “is this cancer?” Her first mammogram 6 months after treatment is fraught with anxiety. Even now, nearly 13 years out, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. “No Evidence of Cancer” is music to my ears.
- Your friend could die from breast cancer. She could also live for decades with metastatic breast cancer. You could be hit by a car tomorrow. Breast cancer is a lesson in mortality. We all die. Not a pleasant thought and it will make you sad. Understand this: none of us come with an expiration date. Based on your friend’s prognosis, she will face some tough decisions. Be supportive. Listen. Give hugs. It’s okay to cry. Love on her and all your other friends and family members.
- For some, breast cancer is a lesson in living life fully. Your normally tight lipped, self-restrained friend may toss aside the invisible chains that bind her to the expectations of others. She may want to challenge herself and ask you to join her in zip lining, hiking up mountains, or traveling to parts of the world where drinking the water will make you nauseous. She wants to feel life. Unadulterated, unfiltered, and unrestrained.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There may be other ways you can best support your bestie through treatment and long after.
Let me leave you with something for you: do not allow your friend’s diagnosis to consume your life. Do not give of yourself to the point of exhaustion or depletion. Remember to fill your cup first.
All my love, Peggy