What To Do When Your Friend Has Breast Cancer

Heather Lagemann started writing her blog, Invasive Duct Tales, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. It was named one of our Best Breast Cancer Blogs of 2015. Read on to learn how her family and friends helped her through breast cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32, I was nursing an infant, doing preschool runs, and binge watching “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. I really didn’t have much previous experience with cancer and it was basically, like, a horrible disease that people died from in the movies. I saw “A Walk to Remember”as a teenager. Tragic…and it was also basically the closest I had come to real life cancer.

It was the same for many of my friends and family, and with each new hurdle I faced — the initial shock, surgery, chemotherapy, bad days, worse days, bald days, menopausal-at-32 days — I saw the struggle come over them. They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what to do.

Most of the people in my life rocked it, naturally, because really, all a cancer girl wants is for her people to be there. But, still, there were others who could have used a little guidance. And that’s okay, because it’s really not a normal situation. I get weird if there’s an unclaimed fart hanging around so I don’t expect you to know how to handle my cancer.

With that said, in all my cancer patient expertise (an expertise that no one really wants), I have come up with five ways to be a friend to someone with cancer.

This seems like common sense, but it has to be said. I didn’t want people to look at me differently, and I certainly didn’t want people to treat me differently. I was diagnosed just before Easter, and I told my family that the only way I was going to show up to Easter lunch was if they could act normal. So they did, and the precedent was set. This didn’t mean that they ignored the fact that I had cancer; that wouldn’t be normal. So we talked about it, got worried about it, made jokes about it, and then rifled through our kids’ Easter baskets when they weren’t looking.

So if you normally have a girls’ night out once a month, keep inviting your friend. She may not be able to go, but it’s nice to feel normal. Take her to a movie. Ask her how she is, and give her free reign to vent (like you would have at 15, when her boyfriend dumped her, although the situation couldn’t be more different). Truly listen, and then give her the latest happenings, ask her advice on nail polish colors, and talk to her about the things that you normally would. It’s nice to feel normal via your friends in an otherwise foreign situation.

This means never, ever, ever say something like, “If you need anything, let me know,” or “Please call me if you need help.” She won’t. I promise you.

Instead, think of things you know she’ll need help with, and get on it. In the midst of chemotherapy, I had an acquaintance just show up and mow my lawn. She didn’t text me or even knock on my door. She just did it. I didn’t have to have the awkward conversation of doling out my chores to a friend — which always just turned into, “I’m fine. We’re okay. Thanks, though!” — and there was no place for my pride to get in the way. It was just done. It was amazing. Since your friend won’t call you and tell you what they need help with, I will:

* Getting food on the table. Coordinating meals is a great help. There are websites like mealtrain.com that make it so easy, and I can’t tell you how much stress it took away knowing that my family would be fed when I didn’t have the energy to do it. Also, if you’re at a grocery store near her, shoot her a text to see if she’s out of milk or goldfish crackers and pick them up for her.
* Childcare. This may vary, but for me, I couldn’t pick up my own baby for three weeks after surgery. And keeping up with a 3-year-old during chemo? No. One of my best friends gathered the troops and put together a childcare calendar that fit my needs, and I am forever grateful. Your friend will jump for joy (or smile at you from the couch) if you offer to take her kids to the zoo for the day or even to the park for an hour.
* Cleaning. She ain’t got time or energy for that right now! My house was never as disgusting as it was when I was in active treatment, and funnily enough, I have never had more visitors. A close friend or group of girlfriends can pitch in and either do it themselves or hire a service.
* Lawn care. In my house, my husband usually takes care of this (I tell him I’m too pretty to mow or take out the trash, and it works — even bald). However, my husband had a lot on his plate too, so this was really helpful in not letting our yard turn into a jungle.

There’s a lot going on right now: appointments, scans, medications, lots of feelings and fear, probably a chemotherapy-induced menopause, trying to guide her family through this while not really knowing how. So if she doesn’t text back, or ignores your calls for a little while, let it slide and keep on trying. She’s probably overwhelmed but is reading your texts and listening to your voicemails and really appreciates them. If you gift her a book, for example (a nice thing to do, since there’s so much downtime at chemo), don’t expect her to read it. I remember feeling so bad when a friend asked me multiple times about a book she gifted me that I hadn’t read. Basically, just cut her lots of slack and don’t expect much (or really anything) from her right now.

It’s a hard thing to do, sitting in someone’s pain with them, but that’s what she needs from you right now. It’s your natural instinct to want to make her feel better by saying things like, “You’ll be okay,” or “You’re so strong! You will beat this!” or “You’re only given what you can handle,” or “Just keep a positive attitude.” (I could go on for days.) Saying those things might make you feel better, but they won’t make her feel better, because you don’t really know that she’ll be okay. She is strong, but she doesn’t really have a say in how this will turn out. She doesn’t want to feel like it’s up to her to “beat” this. What she wants is for someone to sit with her in this uncertainty because it’s scary…and yes, it’s uncomfortable.

My niece is one of the only people who talked with me about the possibility of my death, and she was 7. No one else was willing to look death in the eye with me, but it was on my mind daily. I’m not saying you need to have in-depth death talks, but be open to your friend’s feelings. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say as long as you are willing to truly listen. And trust me, she knows this is hard for you too, and she will appreciate your willingness to “sit in it” with her.

I know your friend genuinely is special to you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But there is a big difference between loving someone and letting them know that you love them. My favorite part of cancer — yes, I have a favorite part of cancer! — was that it seemed to give people a free pass to tell me how they felt about me, and it was amazing. I got so, so many cards, letters, and messages full of kind words, forgotten memories, palpable encouragement, and just raw love. They served to lift me up on some of my worst days, and it actually changed my view of the world we live in.

Cancer can be incredibly lonely, so every little gift, card in the mail, and meal dropped off let me know I was still a part of the world at large. Besides, why should more attention be placed on you during your wedding year than your (hopefully, only) cancer year? I say: When someone has cancer, that is when we should go balls-to-the-wall making them feel special. They need it, and honestly, it meant more during my cancer year than my wedding year.

As long as you approach your friend with love, you will be just fine. And while you may not be able to do everything in this article, just promise me you’ll dropkick anyone who tries to tell her stories about the grandmother, sister, or neighbor they had who died of breast cancer, okay?