Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer

Friends can be a wonderful source of emotional and practical support during the breast cancer journey. Sometimes acquaintances become good friends but, sadly, close friends sometimes fall away, perhaps because they don't know what to say or how to help.

The following suggestions are from women who have had breast cancer -- the things they found helpful and unhelpful -- but it's clear that not everyone wants the same type or level of support. You should take your lead from your friend, listen for cues and don't be afraid to make suggestions.

Emotional help

  • Be available to listen -- let you friend know you're available to come over when needed. Cry with her, laugh with her, listen to her. Often there is no need for words.
  • Often women with breast cancer lie awake at night worrying. If you don't mind taking her calls in the middle of the night, let her know.
  • Don't be too afraid that you won't know what to say, just be yourself.
  • Let her know you care -- it's difficult to ask for help, but that doesn't mean your home-made meal won't be very gratefully accepted.
  • Phone, but be aware that at times even talking may be tiring. Try not to call at meal times, too early or too late in the day, and check to see whether she is being inundated with calls from other people.
  • Visit, but phone first to check it's okay. Don't visit with sick or noisy children, or if you're sick yourself.

Practical help

  • Prepare nutritious home-cooked meals, soups, biscuits and cakes that can be frozen and used when needed.
  • Help with housework, gardening or looking after pets. For several weeks after surgery, hanging out washing, vacuuming and ironing may be physically difficult.
  • Take her shopping and carry packages, or take a list and do it for her.
  • Offer to drive her to medical treatments  or appointments. Perhaps work out a roster of family and friends to cover each visit.
  • Ask what else she would like you to do and listen for clues.

Things that won't help:

  • Don't ask her about the latest cure or treatment you've heard about.
  • Don't burden her with your fears or worries.
  • Definitely don't tell her any horror stories about other people with cancer.
  • Don't give up on her or stop ringing or visiting -- stick with her through the highs and lows.
  • Don't tell her how she should be changing her lifestyle or diet. It may be hard enough for her to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Don't tell her to 'be positive'. That may make it hard for her to talk to you about how she really feels.

Special considerations for the workplace

The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer may affect your colleague physically, emotionally and mentally. The best ways to help your colleague will depend on the type of work she does, her treatment and whether or not she needs or wants to work. Some women return to work as quickly as possible because they crave the normality and camaraderie that work offers. Others need time away from work to deal with breast cancer and its treatment without the rigours and strains of the workplace. Each woman's response and needs will be different but the following suggestions may help:

  • If you're her manager, find out whether she wants others to know and whether she'd like you to break the news for her. Establish sick leave entitlements and discuss other financial options if possible and appropriate. Be flexible with time off for doctor's appointments, tests and treatment.
  • Before she returns to work, discuss any limitations that may apply. Be aware that how she feels may change from day-to-day or week-to-week. Arrange for someone to help out if the workload gets to be too much.
  • If you're a colleague, treat her normally but let her know you understand that she may be working in challenging circumstances. Don't be afraid to ask how she's feeling and give her the opportunity to talk if she wants to.
  • Field questions from curious customers and clients.
  • Remember to ask her to social functions even if she's not at work. She may not be able to attend but will still feel part of the team.

Things that won't help:

  • Avoiding her
  • Making assumptions about what she can and can't do
  • Asking too many questions, or inappropriate questions like: 'Were you a smoker?' or, 'Is it in your family?'

More information

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Helping a friend

The Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer brochure may help you provide meaningful support to your friend.

In it, women who have had breast cancer share the things they found helpful and unhelpful.


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