Friends' support can help cancer patients

Ask questions, but stay positive


Lucie Shores, Contributing writer

When someone you know shares the news of a life-threatening illness, it can change the way you see that person and alter how you interact with her.

Of course, relationships are affected during a disease as devastating as breast cancer, but we have some control over whether this effect is negative or positive. Even though you may not know what to say in a given moment or what to do in a given situation, experts remind us the relationship that counts is with the person, not with the illness.

Breast cancer is one of the most commonly found types of cancer. A woman's concept of breast cancer may color all her interactions, making it difficult to relate normally. According to studies, attitude can affect treatment and have real consequences in terms of well-being and survival.

Doctors agree that the benefits of intimacy and personal support are immeasurable in the battles we have with major illness. Certainly the most important thing anyone can do to support a friend or relative with breast cancer is to be there while she begins to navigate the grueling course of treatment, recovery and ongoing lifestyle adjustments.

In support of the patient, don't assume she will be shuttling between home and hospital. Each woman's ability to deal with cancer differs, but most patients benefit from experiencing continued successes of working, the highs of being part of a lively community, and the intimacy of family and friends. However, if there is too much stress in continuing to interact as expected, the best things can include travel and time for reorientation.

Offer to accompany the patient on short trips or provide opportunities for recreation or simply rest and relaxation.

The practical concerns of cancer patients are overwhelming. Be up-front about the uncertainty the patient may feel, but try to focus on available solutions rather than the list of concerns.

Ask questions that open the door to communication, but allow the patient to decide whether she wants to talk about the diagnosis or about life as usual. Present the opportunity to choose communication or silence, and be aware if she starts to slip into depression and isolation. As someone outside the process, you can keep these things in mind better than the one inside the emotional maelstrom.

The stress of both certainly affect one's perspective, strength, and will to recover.

Breast cancer can also affect one's sense of identity. Your presence can reinforce an attitude of normalcy and acceptance. Continuing to be happy to see the person, and showing it, is important for the breast cancer patient to see in the faces of those around her.

Provide distraction and focus on things that elevate the body's immune system. Suggest physical activities and a healthy diet. These things contribute to the success of battling depression, as well as cancer.

When possible, represent a return to life as usual, discussing normal subjects as usual or finding aspects of time away from the usual grind that are pleasantly diverting. Even dark humor can help someone face the painful course of treatments better than a staunchly sympathetic bedside visage.

In short, the support role is the most complicated and undifferentiated of all; someone who may or may not be of service, who may or may not be able to take action, who may or may not have anything to say, but who is needed more than anyone else. You are one who is willing to enter the process with your friend, sister, mother, daughter, or significant other with no objective other than to be there, to listen, and to care, unconditionally, about her well-being and hope for recovery.