Your Role as Supporter
The first thing that comes to mind when a close friend or loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer is, “What can I do to help?” Then the realization sets in that there is no book to read, thing to buy, or gift to give that can make things better for either the person with breast cancer or you, the support person. It is at times a lonely journey, even with all the supports available. And for the support person, the confidant, it can also be lonely not knowing what to do or say. These feelings are often overwhelming for someone who has not dealt with them before.
Coping with Feelings of Helplessness
The support person goes through his or her own grieving process and feels vulnerable while trying to be there to support his or her loved one. It is a tough job, but an important role that comes with a sense of great responsibility. A true support person understands the loved one's needs and coping strategies based on knowledge of what has helped from shared experiences. You will be there through each stage of breast cancer treatment, helping deal with the emotional upheaval that occurs. But sometimes it just doesn't feel like you are doing enough.
Researchers have reported that when patients go to their appointments they hear only one-tenth of what is being said — especially in the early diagnostic period — because the tendency is to focus on the emotional impact, their jobs, and their family responsibilities. One big way to support your loved one is to offer to accompany her to her doctor appointments and take notes or just listen and verify what was said.
Communicating with a loved one going through treatment and expressing your concerns to her is part of the ongoing friendship and trust that has already been established. Her breast cancer will add another dimension to the relationship and will solidify the bond. Feeling helpless and being present for someone are two different aspects of the cancer experience as well as in the support process.
There is no one standard way to communicate and express your own concerns as the support person. This answer is based on each individual's approach to any kind of crisis. When you are the support person, there will be times that you will have to keep your concerns to yourself or find someone else with whom you can share these concerns. The important thing is not to add more of a burden to your loved one, who is already struggling to keep things together. If coping with these feelings of helplessness becomes overwhelming, there are always caregiver support groups that you may want to join, or professional help may be available at the local cancer center where your loved one is getting her treatments. You may also choose to seek individual counseling on this matter if needed.
In Her Own Words
I felt that my part in my friend's life during her battle with breast cancer was to validate. Validate that everything about it sucked. When your friend is faced with having both her breasts removed — instead of saying “Just cut them off, get rid of them” — it's okay to say “This sucks!” Validate that it's okay to not be happy and perky all the time, just to make everyone else feel okay; it's okay to cry.
— Beth, age 53, friend
Coping with feelings of helplessness is a common occurrence for both the person with breast cancer as well as the support person. Recognizing that this is a common bond between you will also help in the coping process.
Do not be of false cheer, saying to your loved one, “Don't worry, everything will turn out okay.” This may be helpful for a split second, but then reality sets in and it may just add to their stress. It is better to say, “I am here for you.”
The Best Person for the Job
Overshadowing it all is that feeling that you are a helpless bystander and there must be something you could be doing to make it better. After all, she is depending on you for support. The role of the support person is one of utmost respect and honor and you have been specially chosen for this role. You take this responsibility seriously because it is a role that only you can fulfill. Go with confidence, letting go of that feeling of helplessness and the need to make it all better. Even though you are sailing in unknown territory, recognize that you know her the best and can draw on those shared past experiences and simply walk beside her.
If you are not sure about your own sense of strength in coping with your loved one's breast cancer experience and are focused on what her illness will mean to you, be patient. You are going through the process along with her. You will need to ground yourself in the past experiences that you have shared with her, remembering how you were able to work through them triumphantly. All this will help you move forward with the needed strength that will sustain the two of you throughout the experience.
If you are not chosen to do a certain task that you have offered, it is important to not take it personally. Remember the answer is always to make the journey as manageable as possible and follow your loved one's lead.
A good rule of thumb to use to evaluate whether you are the best person for the job is to find out your loved one's level of need for support. Does your loved one want to listen to your concerns and console you? This may provide a distraction for her, but it probably will be short lived. Does bringing up the subject of anxious feelings about this journey to your loved one provide her with relief at knowing that the subject is out in the open, or does bringing up your concerns add anxiety and fear to your loved one who is already burdened from breast cancer treatment and other adjustments needed to get through treatment? If you, the support person, cannot identify the best approach, you may want to consult with professionals. Seek the help of the social worker or psychologist at your local breast cancer center for support.
However, if you feel you are not the best person for the job, perhaps you can help identify and approach another person who may be better at meeting her emotional needs. You can still help by organizing and scheduling rides for treatment or doctor appointments, or you could offer to shop for groceries and do errands while another support person is the “listen to feelings” person. The fact that you are asking to help shows your concern and willingness to be there for her.