22 ways to help a friend with breast cancer

How to support people with breast cancer through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
Health.com // Health.com

Whether your friend or family member is newly diagnosed or in the midst of treatment, she's unlikely to be wowed by vague offers or having to do your thinking for you. She has enough on her mind; she has cancer. She may not want that tuna casserole or to hear about what treatment your Aunt Phyllis had either.

So how can you help? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. That's why we turned to survivors for our list of support dos and don'ts. Our patient-generated advice is sorted into three stages—Diagnosis, Surgery & Treatment, and Recovery—identified by Maureen Broderick, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with cancer patients and run cancer support groups. Here's what you need to know.

--By Anne Krueger, Health.com

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Learn to listen

"One of the most important ways a friend supported me was by listening to me as I decided what to do," says Orinda, Calif. writer Victoria Irwin, 57, who had a lumpectomy and radiation earlier this year. "When I was in decision-making mode, it's all I could think about or talk about. My friend listened to me over and over again. I think she learned more than she ever wanted to, and she helped me formulate the questions I needed to ask at doctor's appointments," she says. "She didn't give advice, but acknowledged the difficulty of the situation. That listening was the most helpful thing she could have done."

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Be my note taker and advocate

A year after having a stroke, New Jersey homemaker Florence Tweel, 55, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first concern was her children, who were 12 and 15.

"I needed all of my strength to focus on how I was going to get through this and tell my children," Tweel says. "I was lucky to have a friend, Linda, who went with me to every appointment. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight. It wasn't my job to understand anything that was being told to me medically because she took notes on it and we'd go back to her husband, who is a doctor, to get advice." Linda's support gave Tweel the energy to be at her best with her family and get the treatment she needed. "She was a Godsend," she says.

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Follow his or her breast cancer page

A great way to help a breast cancer patient is to visit their page on a site like Mylifeline.org, Caringbridge.org, Lotsahelpinghands.com, or Carepages.com (or help them set one up if they don't have one). Such sites let people (or friends or family) build private or public communities where patient updates and schedules can be shared, says Broderick.

People can ask for and get the kind of help they really want and need. Survivor Anne Steele, 51, Hermosa Beach, California, who had chemo, a lumpectomy, and radiation, for example, liked having companions with her during chemo while Victoria Irwin, who spent her chemo time in solitary pursuits like reading, preferred to save friends' graciousness for another time.

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Read my blog

Many of the sites that offer scheduling let breast cancer patients or their families or friends blog about their treatment and recovery progress. Dawn Bontempo, 42, a civil servant in the department of veteran affairs in Arlington, Virginia, created a Mylifeline.org account right after she was diagnosed last year. She spread the word and link to friends, family, and colleagues via a Facebook post.

"I don't ask for help easily, so this made that part simpler,” she says. "The 'help' was essential to my fight. But my blog kept everybody—all my long-distance family and friends—in the loop and up to date." I can't underestimate the importance." Bontempo's blog posts turned into a book, Breast Cancer Mardi Gras: Surviving the Emotional Hurricane and Showing My Boobs to Strangers.

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Give me phone numbers

"People would start to tell me about their friends who survived cancer and, to be honest, I really didn't want to hear about it," admits Anne Steele. Hearing another person's story secondhand, even if it had a good outcome, didn't feel like encouragement to Steele. Talking directly to other people with breast cancer, however, can be helpful. "If a friend gave me a survivor's contact information, that was beneficial," says Steele, who could follow up with a call when she felt like it.

"Make sure to ask the women you know with breast cancer if they want to be connected with others who have it," says Jodi Maslowski, 45, a human resources manager in Phoenix. She said yes when she was diagnosed at the age of 36 with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and was connected with three young area women.

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Be my email pen pal

When the unknown looms, hearing from someone who's "been there" can really make a difference, says Mary Vaughan, 58, of Gaithersburg, Md. She found that understanding someone at church; a fellow member who'd had breast cancer some years earlier started writing her emails full of hard-won advice.

"First, she told me I could get in touch anytime, day or night. That was so comforting," says Vaughan. She gave her tips that were practical (how to screen offers of help and get what you really need) and the more emotional ("Let yourself cry or be angry—that's important. It's a way of letting yourself get to know yourself better during this time of self discovery").

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Keep it light

Sue Murrian, 62, a Knoxville homemaker who had a lumpectomy and radiation for her early-stage breast cancer, most appreciated "help" with a light-hearted approach. "It was important to me to keep up my spirits," she says. The best care package came from a sister-in-law. "In it were these little press-on tattoos. They came with a note that said, 'Put these on your breast and surprise your radiation technicians!' I got the biggest kick out of that."

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Make a silly cake

Bontempo didn't mince words when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. She invited everyone via a Facebook post to help her kick cancer's ass. Her office responded with a "Go Kick Cancer's Ass!" party that included a cake with the same message.

Steele's friends threw her bald head a party. "People were wonderful; they showed up wearing funny wigs, hats, and scarfs and bought me hats, wigs, and scarves to wear and keep. A friend had a cake made of me and put curly green hair on my bald head," she says. "It actually made baldness fun!"

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Distract me with little surprises

"At some point I must've told one of my co-workers about how when I was a child and I'd get sick my mother would always buy me a little gift," recalls Aimee Johnson, 46, executive director of the Alabama arm of the American Diabetes Association. So, the first time she went to chemotherapy, Johnson's staff had a little present for her. "And then every time I went to chemo, there was a gift—Netflix to watch or a book to read while I was there," she says. "Or flowers to take home."

A friend of Victoria Irwin's bought her tickets to a concert series. "That was her gift to me—the gift of distraction from treatment. Otherwise my days would have revolved around radiation in the morning," Irwin says. "The little distractions help you feel normal."

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