Commentary

October 18, 2013

Supporting a friend with breast cancer

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Maranda Flynn
Staff writer

Restless Wings Photography
Cancer survivor Robin Vander Linden, 33, Sierra Vista, her daughter Samantha, 6, and the women that have played an important role in Robin’s life, gathered for a group photograph prior to the start of her chemotherapy treatments, April 2013.

“What? Breast cancer? But she’s too young … she has kids! I just can’t believe it!”
Sound familiar?

Many of you, like myself, may prefer to live in that fantasyland where nothing like that happens to you, or those close to you. Sure you hear about it, but that stuff only happens to other people.

Right?

Wrong.

Like a slap in the face, reality hits and it’s no longer just someone else. It’s your mom, your best friend, or even your daughter. So now what do you do?

When it was my turn to be the supporter, I was scared. What if I say the wrong thing? Do I talk about cancer at all? How will I know if it’s too much or not enough? Do I even offer help or would that upset her?

It can be hard to know what to say or do when someone you know is diagnosed with breast cancer, but you know that you want to help – and you can.

The following are some suggestions on where to begin.

Understand the grieving process
Being diagnosed with breast cancer often leaves women feeling less feminine. A grieving process is to be expected as they begin to lose the things that make them feel like a woman. Be there through the anger, fear and emotional roller coaster as she loses her hair or approaches surgery. Don’t be scared to hug her because she probably needs it.

Cancer survivor Robin Vander Linden, 33, Sierra Vista, is beginning her second round of chemotherapy after completing radiation just last week. She explained that she hates being singled out because of her cancer.

“It drives me crazy when people feel really sorry for me and tell me I’m too young to have to go through all this,” she said. “It’s sort of like rubbing salt in the wound. I try to take it lightly though because I know they don’t mean wrong by it.”

Offer specific help
She has cancer. She is tired. She has endless appointments and little energy. Don’t make her do the thinking. Instead of asking what you can do to help, tell her what you are going to do. Take her kids to school so that she can sleep in, set up a house cleaning service for her, drive her to appointments or set up a meal delivery calendar so she doesn’t have to cook. She may be reluctant to ask for help so don’t make her.

Get professional pictures
Before her hair starts to fall out, take her to get pictures taken. Have her get pictures of her alone, with her girlfriends and with her family. These will be inspirational as she travels this journey.

Help her find the perfect wig
Before she loses her hair, take her to find a wig that she is comfortable with. It is best to get one that is good quality, and that usually comes with a price tag. Take donations from friends, or have friends or family donate their locks to organizations that make wigs for cancer patients. Having you by her side will comfort her as she finds the look that will carry her through the journey.

Be understanding
There will be days that she is up, and days that she is very down. Don’t take it personal if you call and she avoids the phone or a text goes unanswered. This is nothing more than expected behavior, considering the circumstances. She will call you back when she is up to it.

Don’t disappear when treatments end
There will come a time that she will start to feel better and her energy will return. But the distress of cancer doesn’t end when the treatments do. All that she has put on the back burner will now consume her time. It may be easy as her supporter to forget about this. Remember to continue helping as she develops a new lifestyle. Remind her to rest, even if she feels ambitious.

Live life and laugh – with her
Watch funny movies, take long drives, talk about old memories, visit the spa, or have a slumber party. Take her mind off of her cancer. Make her laugh. Make her remember why she is fighting.

Remind her of that warmth in her heart. When she has more strength, take her dancing, or shopping. Do normal activities. She will appreciate it because she won’t feel so different.

“My friends have been my biggest support,” Vander Linden explained. “They keep me feeling normal and treat me the same as if I was never diagnosed. They always do anything for my kids and me. Their encouragement keeps me fighting and staying so positive.”

Build a support network
Find organizations in your community that you both can visit. Take her to events so that she can be around those who are experiencing similar feelings. Realize that you can’t do it all, even though you may want to. Creating a support group allows everyone to help out, taking a large amount of the burden off of you. Even though she may not say it, she will be overjoyed to see all of her loved ones helping out.

“My small town has really shown just how amazing it can be,” said Vander Linder. “I am very proud to be part of it. If I lived in a larger city, I don’t think I would have this sort of response.

Just say hello
It may not seem like much, but just send a text saying “I’m thinking about you” or emails telling her that you love her. Empowering phrases such as “You will beat this” never get old.

There isn’t an all-inclusive, correct across-the-board response when a loved one is diagnosed. If you are unsure of what to do, ask her how she prefers things. Most importantly, know that she recognizes your efforts and she appreciates it more than you think.




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