October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, AKA the most confronting time for a person to be undergoing treatment for cancer. A time when the women’s mags in the chemo ward are full of harrowing stories of despair, designed to tug on the heartstrings and get us donating money to the cause.
I know this because I’ve been both the person undergoing treatment, bombarded and traumatised by representations in the media, and a few years later, the trauma-for-hire telling tales of woe in order to make others donate to various platforms. Which I did willingly, to above all else raise awareness of the fact breast cancer can affect women - and men and non-binary people - from as young as 20 with no family history.
18 years on from that shock diagnosis, and now happily and healthily in my 40s, I am increasingly contacted by friends, friends of friends and school mums newly diagnosed, in shock and trying to piece together their new, heavily fragmented reality. They all ask if I’d mind talking to them and, honestly? I freaking love it.
Cancer at 26 set me aside from so many of my peers. I had countless well-meaning and awkward conversations where I ended up consoling those around me. Loneliness and fear were the hardest parts of that time and if I can alleviate even a little of that for others I consider myself #blessed.
So I consider myself an expert in the subject of how to help those newly diagnosed with breast cancer and/or undergoing treatment for it. And as such I’ve compiled some handy tips designed to make you a better friend and them a little more supported.
On a practical level
Reassure your friend that people love to be put to work. It makes them feel useful at a time when most feel pretty bloody hopeless. If anything they are doing you a favour by mobilising you into action; they shouldn’t feel at all bad about that!
Technology has made huge advances since 2003 when I was diagnosed. Not just in terms of targeted treatments of cancers but also in vaguely related areas - like meal rosters!
There are many great templates available now. Ask your friend if anyone has started one for them that you can join, or if they’d like you to set one up.
Work with a best friend or partner on all the small details: number of people in the household, dietary restrictions, hygienic delivery (please don’t leave warm chicken unattended on the doorstep of someone with a weakened immune system) etc.
There are many other practical ways to help. Childcare, washing, housework, grocery shopping, driving them places, especially after surgery. Chemo can go all day and be incredibly dull. Perhaps they might like you to drop over a care package and picnic to take? Or even better, take them to their appointment and keep them occupied and entertained.
The internet is a cesspool of information for anyone with a medical condition (also: for anyone). Some practical help might be offering to look up side effects or deciphering medical terms they’ve heard at appointments, so they can stay away from Dr Google.
On an emotional level
Ask them how they’re feeling. And really listen to the answer.
So many times you hear about someone who is ‘doing so well’ with their cancer diagnosis/treatment, when the reality is people just hear what they want for their own comfort.
Listen and be sympathetic, but please try not to get upset. They really don’t want to comfort you. And remember, you get to walk away from the conversation and switch off momentarily. Your friend is carrying this load with them every minute of every day.
Don’t centre yourself in the conversation. Chances are you don’t know what they’re going through so let them own the pain without diminishing it.
Don’t mention other people who have gone through cancer, unless that person is 104 years old and running marathons. You’d be amazed at the number of people who think it’s okay to bring up dead people. Also, while breast cancer is terrifyingly common it’s a pretty broad term for a complex disease that has many different presentations.
Don’t recommend any alternate therapies or dietary changes. If someone is interested in these things they will make their own way there. Trust me, the last thing anyone wants to hear about is your friend’s neighbour's cousin who cured themselves of cancer just by eating nothing but organic hand harvested blackcurrants for a year.
Keep in touch. Send them funny memes. Let them know you’re thinking of them, that you love them, and that you’re there for them. They will have really bleak dark days but they will also need light relief. Try to be there for both.