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Supporting a Friend with Breast Cancer: 8 Dos and Don’ts

By Sheryl Kraft
October 20, 2023

Your good friend was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Her world has been upended. She’s shocked, frightened, and sad. And though the threat of breast cancer is omnipresent for 1 in 8 women, she never expected to come face to face with it.

Then, just like that, for the first time in the history of your friendship, you’re tongue-tied, unsure of what to say or do. How can you help? You want to say something, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. You want to be supportive and upbeat, but you’re feeling shocked and scared, too.

It happened to me. First, as the patient, at age 34, and later, on the other side, as the friend trying to help someone else facing their own diagnosis. Logic would dictate that, since I already experienced breast cancer, I’d be well-equipped to help my friends. But logic often fails when it comes to matters of health or the heart.

Friends Can Have a Range of Reactions to a Cancer Diagnosis

“A cancer diagnosis is not only stressful to the patient, but to the patient’s close friends as well,” says Dianne Mead, a licensed clinical social worker with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Westchester, New York.

As the patient, while I struggled with my own disbelief and uncertainty, I witnessed my friends struggle with their own. Many struck out, like the acquaintance from my children's nursery school class who turned and rushed the other way when she saw me coming down the grocery aisle.

There were others who amazed me with their sensitivity and empathy. These friends somehow knew the right things to say as well as when to back off and give me space. They sent cards, books, and meals. They visited when I was ready to see them, one even sitting silently at my bedside as I napped fitfully after arriving home from my surgery.

But not everyone knows instinctively what to do in a situation like this.

How to Support a Friend Who Has Breast Cancer

Your friend needs you, and you want to help. In my experience, there are some things you can do that are likely to support her—and some things you should avoid.

DON’T Give the Worst News First

If you know someone who passed away, whose treatment failed, or whose cancer spread, kindly keep it to yourself (on the other hand, make sure you share other patients’ success stories, if you know of any). In your desire to express empathy, please don’t say, “I know just how you feel,” unless you’ve been through it yourself. It’s difficult to understand how the person feels, since a diagnosis of breast cancer is complicated and multifaceted.

DO Admit You Don’t Know What to Say

It’s understandable to be at a loss for words. Show up anyway. You can be silent, and that’s enough. Let her know you’re here for her, even if it's just to listen. “It’s okay to be honest and say, ‘I very much want to help, but don’t know how. I hate to ask, but could you please tell me what you need so I can help you best?’” suggests Mead.

DON'T Treat the Person Like They’re Sick

A breast cancer diagnosis throws the patient into a world littered with doctor appointments and endless medical procedures that make them wish for their former “normal” life. One survivor told me that, years later, people still asked her—in hushed tones—how she was feeling, as if she’d just recuperated from the plague. Survivors want to move on after their surgery and treatment and shed their earlier patient status.

DO Remember to Chat About Other Things

Although you don’t want to ignore the subject entirely, remember to also direct the conversation away from cancer to things that bring her joy. Ask her about her children, what books she’s read, or what podcasts she has listened to lately. If she’s up for it, take her away for a day of shopping, plan a spa day, invite her out for a walk, or just hang out together and watch a comedy on Netflix.

DON'T Push Away the Statistics

Please don’t ignore the scary facts of the disease, although it might be tempting. The truth is that it is terrifying. Plain and simple. “It’s best to avoid telling people to ‘stay positive,’” Mead says. This can create a great deal of unnecessary pressure and stress on people with breast cancer to be “up” for family and friends, and to not be authentic in the moment, she says.

DO Sit with the Person’s Fear

It’s okay to acknowledge her fear. After all, it's real and valid. Rather than make light of it, or ignore it by telling her that everything will be okay, assure her that you understand that she’s scared. Be open to discussing the cancer with her, if that’s what she wants. It can be helpful, though, if you’ve recently read or heard something about breast cancer, to first ask her if she’d like you to share the information.

DON'T Drop Out of Sight or Stay Away

Among the many tumultuous emotions I had were feelings of vulnerability and isolation, like life was going on without me. It stung deeply when others turned away or avoided me, feeling like a rejection (even though it wasn’t meant to be). It’s so important to show your support, not run from it.

DO Stay in Touch

Hearing a caring voice at the other end of the phone is nice, but some people may not feel like talking. Instead, show you care with an email or text or a handwritten note. One kind hearted gesture that resonated deeply with me was a donation a friend made to a cancer research organization in my honor.

And finally, lastly, remember this: There’s no one way of supporting a friend with breast cancer. Everyone has different needs. You may have a friend who wants to be distracted from her health situation, and another who wants to vent to you about all of it. Sometimes, just showing up, listening, and being compassionate are the greatest gifts you can offer. “Ask your friend what she’d like to talk about,” Mead says. “Let her lead the conversation.”

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