When a Loved One Has Breast Cancer

In the United States alone, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. When the diagnosis comes, the routines of daily life often grind to a halt as the affected woman reorganizes her life around doctor’s visits and treatment. When someone we know and love is diagnosed with breast cancer, we want to help but don’t always know what to do or say. Cincinnati Parent reached out to some of our local breast cancer support organizations to ask about tangible ways to provide support to a friend or family member battling breast cancer.

“The first thing I always tell everyone is first and foremost- the person with cancer, they are the exact same person they are today as they were five minutes before their diagnosis,” says Tracie Martin, Founder and Director of Development for Pink Ribbon Girls, a non-profit that provides services such as meal delivery, house cleaning and transportation to women with breast cancer in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. “Don’t feel like you have to walk on eggshells. Whatever your relationship was before, continue the same as it has been.” 

Martin understands. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, at only 30 years old, she had a two-year-old and an eight-month-old. “It was devastating,” she says. But she was fortunate. “I come from a big Catholic family. My family, friends and parish rallied around me.” They provided meals, babysat the kids, cleaned the house and took her to chemo treatment. “It’s the little things that you don’t have the energy to do,” she says. “In chemo, you might not be able to stand smells but you still have to provide meals to your kids.” That’s why today, Martin’s non-profit does the same things that people did for her when she was in treatment for breast cancer. All of their services are free, and any man or woman, regardless of income, can receive help. 

The day-to-day tasks are crucial, but they’re not the only way that friends and family can offer help.

Providing emotional support to a loved one battling cancer is just as important. “A lot of times people don’t know what to say. If you aren’t sure what to say just ask, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ or, if you’re a faithful person, ‘I’m praying for you,’” says Martin. Janet Chambers, Executive Director and Founder of I Have Wings Breast Cancer Foundation, agrees. An eighteen-year breast cancer survivor herself, she says that when she was diagnosed there were many people in her life that didn’t know what to do or say, so they did nothing. “That’s not the right answer,” she says. “Go to the dollar store and buy a stack of cards and send that family member a card every single week. Let them know you are there thinking of them while they are going through chemo.” 

“Women are multi-taskers,” notes Martin. “We do it all. When this happens, it can be hard for the woman to accept help.” Chambers agrees. “The mom is the core of the family… I tell women, don’t turn your back on the fact that others want to help you.”

Taking over laundry, lawn work, childcare and preparing meals are all wonderful ways to help a friend or family member battling cancer. But don’t forget that treating cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. When a diagnosis is received there’s often a rush from the larger community to help. But after that first round of chemo, time goes by and all of a sudden the community forgets. “I tell folks to put a note on a calendar and send that person a card three months after their last chemo treatment,” says Martin. “Think outside the box,” she adds. “Emails and texts are so common. Sending a handwritten card to let them know you’re thinking about them or a $10 gift card to Graters is doing just a little bit extra.” When Chambers was going through treatment, it helped her to recognize the little things. “My husband and I would celebrate every chemo treatment,” she says, “we would go to our favorite restaurant or stop and get our favorite ice cream. Just something special to celebrate the small accomplishments.” 

In the end, it’s important to remember that, though you might not know what to say, the person in your life battling cancer probably wants to talk about it. Martin’s advice is simple: “I like to say, ‘If you want someone to cry to, if you need to get it out, I’m your person.’” And small gestures go a long way, notes Chambers. “It’s the simple things in life that really matter when you’re going through something that is very traumatic.” 

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