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First, Just Listen

It’s a shock to learn that a friend or loved one has breast cancer. It’s natural to want to know all the details. But a lot of questions can be tough for them to face. They may not have all the answers yet. Accept what they're sharing. They understand you don’t know what to say. But instead of, "You're a fighter; you're going to beat this,” try, "I can't imagine how you must feel, I'm here to listen if you want to talk." 

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Don’t Say, 'Call Me If You Need Me'

You’ll probably never get the call. It’s better to be specific about what you can do. Say “I can help you with housework on Tuesday or Thursday,” or, “I'm making some casseroles, is there something you would prefer or any ingredient I should avoid?” If they're recovering from surgery, offer to wash their hair since reaching above their head is nearly impossible.

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Kids Need TLC

Kids are kids whether a parent is dealing with cancer or not. Offer to drive your friend’s children to school and shuttle them to soccer practice. Help make things as “normal” as possible. Many teachers and other adults don’t know what to say to kids with a sick parent -- so they say nothing. Be someone they can turn to. Tell them that you’ll listen when they want to talk. 

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They Need a 'Wingman'

It’s easy for someone with breast cancer to get overwhelmed by the decisions they have to make. They might need your help to understand it all. Offer to go along to important doctor’s appointments to take notes and ask questions. Having another set of ears in the room may ease their mind. You can offer to drive them to chemotherapy or radiation sessions, too.

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Reconstruction is NOT a Boob Job

A mastectomy -- the removal of one or both breasts -- is an ordeal. Many women are heartbroken to lose such intimate body parts. Reconstruction can rebuild the shape and look of their chest, but it’s not the same as breast enhancement. It can take many surgeries before it’s all over. Some women decide against doing it at all. Whatever your loved one chooses, accept it. Don’t try to change their mind.

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Cancer Doesn’t Ask Your Age

If someone in their 20s or 30s has the disease, they're probably tired of people saying, “You’re so young and active, how can you have cancer?” They may feel isolated because many people in their shoes are much older. When they feel comfortable, urge them to find a group of young people with breast cancer who can understand what they're going through.

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Men Get It, Too

More than 2,500 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S. If it’s a guy you know, don’t question why they have a “woman’s disease” or insist it must be the wrong diagnosis. Men with breast cancer may need even more support because they feel out of place. Most importantly, encourage the men in your life to get any breast lump checked by a doctor right away.

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Spare Them the Prevention Talk

Keep your opinions about cancer prevention to yourself. It’s not helpful to suggest that yoga, juicing, or anything else could’ve prevented your friend’s breast cancer.

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Cancer Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

There are many different kinds of breast cancer. Some grow fast, some grow slow. Some are harder to treat than others. You probably won’t know exactly which type your friend has -- they might not even know right away. So don’t say, “My friend had breast cancer and it was horrible,” or “My aunt’s cancer was no big deal.” Each case is unique, and people respond differently to treatment.

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Understand if They Say 'No'

People going through treatment or recovering from surgery have a limited amount of energy and need to spend it wisely. Sometimes, they have to turn down an invitation or cancel plans. They're not trying to ditch you -- their body probably needs a reboot. Take a raincheck for a day when they're feeling more rested.

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People Need a Break From Cancer

If your friend is up for getting lunch or meeting for coffee, the last thing they probably want to do is talk about cancer. After all, they're more than their disease. Try to keep the conversation focused on everyday things -- their kids, a recent vacation, or a TV show you both like. If they want to talk about cancer, they’ll bring it up.

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Treatment Is a Long Road

Many people with breast cancer need to take meds for 5-10 years to try to keep cancer from coming back. These drugs can have bad side effects like bone and joint pain, mood swings, and fatigue. Often doctors prescribe other pills -- like antidepressants and pain meds -- to fight those side effects. Know that your loved one might not be back to their “old self” for a while.

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'Moving On' Can Be Hard

Treatment is over, and there are no signs of cancer. That’s great news, but some people still may have some mental healing to do. Your loved one may show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, like not sleeping well or having crying fits. They may constantly check for lumps and bumps. Instead of telling them to “get back to normal,” urge them to talk to their doctor. Medications, therapy, and other treatments can help.

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The Little Things Mean a Lot

People with breast cancer really do want your thoughts and prayers -- even if you haven’t been in touch for years. Let your friend know you’re thinking of them by dropping a nice note or beautiful card in the mail. Even just a text message once in a while will brighten their day. They might be too wiped out to respond right away, but know that all your good thoughts and best wishes are appreciated.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 12/20/2020 Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 20, 2020

SOURCES:

Mary Levey, 59, diagnosed  with breast cancer in 2016, West Henrietta, NY.

VJ Sleight, 61, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, 2010, La Quinta, CA.

Nicole Phillips, 41, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Athens, OH.

Clare Schexnyder, 49, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Decatur, GA.

Valerie Hoff DeCarlo, 53, diagnosed with breast cancer  in 2013, Atlanta.

Vanessa Silva, 41, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, 2015, 2016, New York.

Dana Dinerman, 39, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, 2012, 2016, San Diego, CA.

Jeanne Eury, 51, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013,  Raleigh, NC.

Arnaldo Silva, 66, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Matawan, NJ.

Leslie Mullins, 57, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, Madison, GA.

Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, “31 Truths About Breast Cancer.”

BreastCancer.org: “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 20, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.