Cancer affects more people than just those diagnosed. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, take action for yourself and for those you love. Get screened. Understand your risk. Support your communities, workplaces, and families by encouraging early detection.
Below is anonymous advice about how to support a friend through their diagnosis and treatment. The advice is endorsed by Clinical Genetic Counselors at Color who have experience helping cancer patients and their support systems navigate cancer risk.
When a colleague and friend of mine asked me to cover some of their work because they just received an abnormal mammogram, I didn’t know what to say. I could only imagine how scared I would be going through that, but all I said was “Sure, let me know how I can help!” I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. Looking back, I wish I had shown up differently.
A few weeks later, she called me again and explained that she had invasive breast cancer and was going to need some intensive treatment over the next several months. I was even more speechless, stunned that this was happening but again wanting to know what I could do.
Since cancer is pretty common, I also realize that other friends may be in these exact or similar situations. Looking back on this experience—and thankful my friend is now cancer free!—I’ve been able to reflect with her on what I could have done in each of those life-altering moments.
Together, we came up with the following ideas to support loved ones navigating a cancer diagnosis:
- Acknowledge the situation in the here and now. Don’t avoid it.
Just being there—from afar or in person—with empathy, whether you are able to formulate the “right words” or not, means the world. Call or text and say, “I heard about your diagnosis. I just wanted to reach out and say that I’m thinking about you. I know you are dealing with a lot right now and are supported by friends and family. But please know that I care about you.”
- Check in regularly, focusing on today.
Someone going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment may feel differently from day to day, and hour by hour. Send a simple message on a regular cadence, and leave room for different responses. “How are you doing today?” can be a more relevant and less overwhelming question to answer than “How are you doing?” You can also follow up regularly with a shared interest or something funny to let them know you are thinking of them.
- Be giving — emotionally and through small gifts.
You might know some of your friend’s favorite things, like their favorite coffee order, flower, snack, or movie genre. If you live nearby, consider dropping off a small gift at their door. If you are remote, you can organize and send a card or electronic message signed by other employees. These gestures, no matter how small, say “I’ve been thinking about you and I don’t need anything in return.”
- Help with practical tasks.
If you live nearby, consider dropping off a meal (home-cooked or takeout!) or dropping off groceries. Depending on your relationship, you could also try offering, “I could drive you to your next chemotherapy appointment and sit with you, if you’d like some company. Just let me know the date and time if that would be helpful.”
- Offer an ear.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is already in your wheelhouse: just be a friend who’s there to listen. If they are up for an in-person visit, just sit and be with them. If not, try calling to let your friend know you’re there to provide a shoulder to lean on.
As you lend support, here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Avoid moving into positivity or trying to “fix feelings.”
This is a hard experience and it can feel uncomfortable to be around our friends and family and when they are going through a tough time and expressing negative emotions. They may also feel intense pressure from other people in their lives to “stay positive.” It can be powerful to hold space and time for them to express negative emotions, like fear or sadness.
Be mindful of your friend’s need for space.
They may not always want or feel up to talking about their diagnosis, and that’s OK. You can still check in, but don’t feel bad if they don’t always respond.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
Leave the medical advice and treatment decisions to your friend’s doctors and healthcare team. It’s essential to respect their autonomy in managing their health.
Avoid sharing anecdotes about others who have had a similar diagnosis.
While sharing experiences can be a way to connect, everyone’s journey is different. Knowing that a friend of a friend got a clean diagnosis may not feel reassuring in the moment.
Don’t make assumptions about how your friend feels.
Listen to their specific concerns and preferences. Reflect back to them what they’re saying, rather than telling them how scary this all is for you to watch.
Even if your friend doesn’t respond to every outreach attempt, stay the course. While you should respect their need for space, maintain regular contact and continue to offer your support. Sometimes, people with cancer feel isolated and can be more forgetful or not feel well enough to respond, but knowing that friends are there for them can make a real difference in their emotional well-being.
An abnormal breast cancer screening result and certainly a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, scary, and paralyzing. The good news is that doctors are really good at treating it, especially when it’s discovered early. So another way you can be a good friend to yourself and to those who love you is to get screened for breast cancer as recommended by your doctor.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you can make critical steps toward lessening the impact of breast cancer in your organization. To learn more about Color’s Cancer Prevention & Screening Program, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, visit color.com/cancer.