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Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer

Do you have a friend or colleague who has been diagnosed with breast cancer? Are you unsure how this may affect your relationship or what kind of support you can offer?

To help you, we have compiled this page of useful tips and strategies from women who have experienced breast cancer. Of course, not every individual wants the same type of support. Wherever possible, try to take your lead from your friend. Listen for cues and don’t be afraid to ask what they need or to make a suggestion.

Emotional help

Offering your friend or colleague emotional help during their breast cancer journey can be very powerful. Simply taking the time to check in with them and ask how they are getting on can be rewarding for the both of you. Here are a few tips in case you’re not sure where to start.

  • Be available to listen. Let your friend know that you’re available to come over when needed. Cry, laugh and listen to her. Sometimes there is no need for words.
  • Let her know if you don’t mind taking a call from her in the middle of the night. Often women with breast cancer lie awake at night worrying. Having someone on the other end of the phone can be very comforting.
  • Just be yourself. You don’t need to worry about not knowing what to say.
  • Let her know you care. Many people find it difficult to ask for help. Cooking a homemade meal or offering to do the grocery shopping can go a long way.
  • Phone her, but be respectful of her needs. Try to remember that at times even talking may be tiring. Try not to call at meal times or too early or late in the day. You might even want to ask her if she is being inundated with calls from other people, and when a good time to call might be.
  • 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

For many women with breast cancer, receiving practical help with things such as meals, shopping and housework can be enormously helpful. Here are a few ideas of what you might be able to do to help your friend or colleague:

  • Prepare home-cooked meals, soups, biscuits and cakes that can be frozen and used when needed.
  • Help with housework, gardening or looking after pets. If your friend has had surgery, she will find it difficult to hang out washing, vacuum or iron for several weeks after surgery. Why not offer to pop by and help her out?
  • Take her shopping and carry packages, or take a list and do it for her.
  • Offer to drive her to medical treatments or appointments. You might even be able to 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:

It’s normal to not know what to say to a friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. While just being you and giving her your time can be greatly beneficial, there are some things that probably won’t help:

  • Don’t tell her about the latest cure or treatment you’ve heard about.
  • Don’t burden her with your fears or worries.
  • Don’t tell her horror stories about other people with cancer.
  • Don’t give up on her or stop ringing or visiting.
  • 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

Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment affects everyone differently. How your colleague is dealing with her diagnosis is a personal thing, although she is probably experiencing physical andemotional distress on some level.

The best way to help your colleague will depend on the type of work she does, the kind of treatment she is undertaking 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 companionship that work offers. Others need time away from work to deal with breast cancer and its treatment. If you’re not sure what will help your colleague, you may find the following suggestions useful:

  • If you’re her manager, ask her whether she wants others to know about her diagnosis 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.
  • 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 inappropriate questions like: ‘Were you a smoker?’ or, ‘Is it in your family?’

More information

If you would like further information on helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer, you might like to consider the following resources: