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Support loved ones

When you find out that your partner, your mother , your friend or a close relative has breast cancer, your first thought is usually how can I help? Often it is difficult to know just what to do. You may be struggling to deal with the news yourself.

There are a number of ways you may be able to help:

As a partner:

Almost all couples find that the woman being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer is a difficult time for them. Many men leave their wives because they can't deal with it. If things are getting to difficult for you it is important to get help.

As a son or daughter
  • by understanding and just being there

You may not know what to do. You are so used to being the one being cared for.

As a friend
  • by providing emotional care and support.

You will want to 'be there': to be supportive and to let the person know they are loved and needed no matter what. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, it can be a turning point in the relationship. Some friends drift apart. Others grow closer.

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The information below will help you work out how best to help people you care about who have breast cancer.

If your partner or friend has metastatic breast cancer they will need more help. If you are the primary carer, you can get more information on additional physical and emotional support .

How can I help?

The diagnosis of cancer can be devastating for the patient, their family and friends. You may be involved with helping and supporting them. What you can offer will depend on your relationship with the person, their needs and your own abilities and availability.

  • Help can include practical assistance and/or emotional support. (Ask what will be most useful)
  • Having some guidelines to work with can help to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by the situation. (Use the information below to help)
  • Understanding what is happening for the other person can assist you to respond in a useful way. (Ask them what will be helpful to them)

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What can I do?

Much of our self image comes from the roles we play - parent, spouse, worker, artist or friend. Illness can interfere with these valuable roles. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to give them space to do what they do well and show you value and care about them.

  • Resist the temptation to "take over". People still want to lead their own lives and stay as independent as possible.
  • Start with small, practical things that the person might not be able to do for themselves.
  • The plans you make will certainly change as conditions change, so be prepared to be flexible and learn on the job.
  • Be specific about your availability and what you can do, e.g.: "I will be free to visit every Saturday", "Would you like me to mow the lawn?".
  • Just saying 'Can I help?' may not be enough. Identify what you are good at and would like to offer.
  • Prepare a meal or help around the house.
  • Look after the children or pets.
  • Provide transport to the hospital or the shops.
  • Obtain information or borrow videos and books. Get a feel for what they enjoy. Many people just want something "light". Others may want books on cancer.
  • Bring some magazines.
  • Entertain, prepare special treats or have fun.
  • Help in the garden.
  • Accompany on a walk or give a massage.

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What can I say?

  • Breaking the ice and making the first contact may be the hardest part. "How are you today?" can be a good opening that will allow the person to then take the lead.
  • Let the person dictate when and where they want to talk and what they want to talk about.
  • Talking is the best method of communication that we have. Simply talking about distress can help to relieve it.
  • You do not always have to be cheerful. Thoughts that a person tries to shut out can eventually do harm so allow them to feel angry, fearful or depressed.
  • Listening may be more important than speaking. You do not need to have all the answers, just listening to questions can help.
  • Encourage reminiscences. It enables people to put their lives into focus.
  • Although people need to talk about what they are going through, equally they want to hear about the outside world and be distracted and entertained for a while.
  • Don't be afraid of silence. Sharing silence can be be very comforting.
  • Avoid giving general advice unless it's asked for. Do not give medical advice but suggest instead that medical concerns are discussed with the doctor or nurse.
  • Do not lie or give unrealistic assurances.

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Questions which will help me get it right

  • Does the person want my help?
  • Have I asked them what they would like?
  • What sort of help have they requested?
  • What can I do?
  • What do I have time to do?
  • Is the help I am offering appropriate to my relationship with that person?
  • Who else is available to help?
  • How will the rest of their family react to my involvement?
  • Are there any language, cultural, gender or religious differences that might aid or interfere with my help?

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An approach to solving problems

Identify the needs. Problems can be:

  • Psychological, social, financial, spiritual or involve family relationships.
  • Frequently complex.

List all possible solutions:

  • Brainstorm and explore all options.
  • To do nothing must also be considered.

Investigate all resources:

  • What can you do and what can others do?
  • Is any other help available?

Decide on realistic action with the other person:

  • Who will do it?
  • When is it to be done?
  • Where will it be done?
  • How will it be done?

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