Tips & Advice for Friends & Family

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My friend has breast cancer. What can I do?

Your Friend or Loved One has breast cancer and you want to help. You need to prepare yourself about how to help after her breast cancer diagnosis. There is no right or wrong way to help somebody with breast cancer. Below are some tried and true tidbits & tools that may help you help your Friend or Loved One. Not all of these will apply to you because of  your circumstances (relationship, location, etc.) Use your best judgement.

Your Friend or Loved One is still your friend, and you know them best.

Please click on each topic to expand and show more information.

First Phone Call/The Day You Find Out Your Friend Has Cancer

You answer the phone and your Friend or Loved One says, “I have breast cancer.” You feel completely unprepared.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t think you have to have all the answers, nor pretend that the breast cancer diagnosis is not a big deal.
  • Don’t say, over and over again, that you are “SO sorry!”
  • Don’t drop off the face of the earth simply because you do not know what to do.
  • Don’t tell stories of how your mom, aunt, friend, cousin’s boss, brother’s mother-in-law’s manicurist all had cancer, and died. Your Friend or Loved One doesn’t need to hear that everybody you know that has had cancer has died.  
  • Don’t start by saying “When I had such and such disease, I did this and I did that.”
  • Remember, this is not about you, but your support of your Friend or Loved One.

What To Do

  • Acknowledge her diagnosis and how it can be scary.
  • Try to be brave. Try not to start blubbering uncontrollably. Try to be strong. Take a deep breath.
  • A simple “I am so sorry this has happened to you. (Insert expletive here, if necessary). We will get through this together. I will be there with you every step of the way.”
  • There are no perfect words. If you don’t know what to say, “I don’t know what to say,” is sufficient! Your Friend or Loved One simply needs you to be there for her and know you care.
  • Just listen.
Telling Friends

“No one told me that cancer can be socially awkward.”
- friend of a breast cancer survivor

Who to tell, who not to tell? Let’s get that cleared up right away.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t assume that your Friend or Loved One wants to tell everybody about their breast cancer diagnosis. Feel honored that she told you –– that is complete trust.
  • Don’t rush out and tell all your mutual friends.
  • Don’t post it on Facebook.

What To Do

  • Find out if they want this to be a public or a private battle. Offer to help make a list of people they would like notified. Offer to make the calls if your Friend or Loved One needs help doing this. Consider that they may want to wait a period of time before sharing their situation.
  • If they are reluctant  to share and you feel somebody may need to know, ask your Friend or Loved One first before telling that person.
Mail

Cancer, in general, is a long process. It doesn’t only end with the words “You have breast cancer.” It continues with every blood test and doctor’s visit–––before, during and after a breast cancer diagnosis.

What Not To Do

  • Don't only think about your Friend or Loved One at their original diagnosis.
  • Don’t stop sending funny emails, or snail mails after you get the news.
    • Most people only send flowers and cards upon hearing the initial diagnosis.
    • Don’t forget your Friend or Loved One during their fight.
  • Don’t expect to hear from your Friend or Loved One every time you send something. They need to concentrate on getting well, not sending a thank you note.

What To Do

  • Remember this is a scary journey for your Friend or Loved One. Honor your friendship by staying in touch.
  • One of the best things you can do for your Friend or Loved One right now is mail them a great book, such as There Is Life After Breast Cancer.
  • Pick up some smaller items to mail throughout treatment, such as some tea, a bookmark, a dried flower from your garden, basically anything they would know that you lovingly picked out because you are thinking of them.
  • Go to Hallmark, your local card shop or visit our on-line store. Buy funny cards, pretty cards, or uplifting cards. For the price of a card and a stamp, you can lift your Friend or Loved One’s spirits.
  • Keep address labels and stamps with you (car/purse/briefcase) and send your Friend or Loved One postcards from wherever you go – even if it is a cheesy coffee shop, from the town you both live in, or a homemade postcard cut from a cardboard box.
  • Write a postscript at the end of your greeting (via card or email), P.S. No need to write back. Just wanted you to know I was thinking about you!
Telephone

You want to call your Friend or Loved One, but are hesitant. You want information, but you do not want to overwhelm them.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t call everyday for an update. Your Friend or Loved One needs to concentrate on getting better, not answering the phone. This doesn’t mean don’t call! Just limit it.
  • Don’t call and pretend the cancer didn’t happen.
  • Don’t assume that texting is okay, if your Friend or Loved One didn’t like it before.
  • Don’t call without first asking what is a good time for her to talk. They may have a significant change in schedule, and may be tired at certain times of the day.
  • Don’t call and complain about how your life is so stressful right now because some company shipped you the wrong microwave oven, etc.

What To Do

  • Ask what is a good time for you to call and talk. Don’t be overly worried if your Friend or Loved One is too tired to talk on occasion.
  • When you do call, ask first, “Are you up to chatting?”
  • Suggest they put a generic message on their phone so that others can call and get updates. Offer to do it for them.
  • Let her and the family know they shouldn’t feel compelled to answer the phone every time it rings.
  • Suggest getting a blog or Caringbridge.org page so that everybody can check for updates on-line anytime.
  • Start a Facebook Group with invite-only privacy features.
  • Text only if you have communicated this way with your Friend or Loved One in the past.
Changing Salutations

We get into such a rut with our regular greetings to people that what comes out of our mouths automatically is: “How are you?” Even in Spanish, one of the first things they teach you is “Como Estas?” Switch it up!

What Not To Do
“How are you?” is a tough question, as is “How are you feeling?” The problem with both questions is that everybody (and I mean everybody) says it. Automatically. Everyday greetings may trigger strong emotions for a person who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

  • If “How are you?” comes out of your mouth, you may get an “I’m OK” in response, or you may get a more detailed answer. Don’t be unprepared or shocked about what may happen next.

Q. “How are you?”

A. “I have cancer and I’m scared and I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Q. “How are you feeling?” Sometimes accompanied with, “You look great.”

A. “I feel like crap. I’m bald. I’m [fat or too skinny]. I can’t sleep. My skin hurts. My body feels like it’s failing me.”

What To Do

  • Don’t be afraid to talk to your Friend or Loved One. After all, they are still the same person you know and love! Change how you greet them, or what you say on the phone or in an email. Try using special or unusual salutations. Consider making your greeting a better fit for your relationship with your Friend or Loved One. You can also sprinkle in an invitation to something fun while you are at it:
    • “Salutations!”
    • “Greetings from earth!”
    • “How about those Giants?”
    • “I feel like having tea. Can I come over and brew us both a cup?”
    • “I just picked up Pretty Woman (or When Harry Met Sally). Can I come over and watch it with you?”
    • “I love you. Where shall I take you for a relaxing couple of hours?”
    • “I want to go for a stroll/window shop. Are you up for going with me?”
Counting Days

Cancer treatments are very long and tedious. What may seem like only a short time to you is an eternity to your Friend or Loved One.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t ever, ever guess the amount of time that has passed. Did I say ever?
    • “So, you’re halfway through the treatment?”
    • “You are almost done, right?”
  • Unless you are absolutely, 100% positive that you are correct, don’t guess. You honestly have no idea how hard this is for your Friend or Loved One.

What To Do

  • It’s okay to ask where they are in treatment. It’s also okay to ask what their treatment schedule is and put it on your calendar. A little extra pampering on chemo days is a special treat.
  • Consider that sometimes treatment dates and schedules can change.  There can be delays.
  • The last day of chemo and/or radiation can be a celebration. Think of it as a birthday celebration (cancer survivors will tell you it’s way better)! Cards, pieces of flair and little gifts are totally appropriate. This is a milestone in the treatment process.
    • Contact your Friend or Loved One’s doctor’s office and ask if you may bring in a cake, balloons, sparkling juice, a few friends, etc. to the office to celebrate your Friend or Loved One’s last day of chemo or radiation. Ask if you can bring enough cake to share with the other patients.
    • Feel free to bring cookies over to your Friend or Loved One the night before, with instructions to bring them with her to give to her nurses. A little note from you is suitable for the occasion :
      • Thanks for taking such good care of my Friend or Loved One, but we insist on having her with us on Wednesdays from now on!
    • You can also have a celebration a few days after your Friend or Loved One’s last chemo or radiation if they would prefer.
Housework

Everybody has laundry to do, and dishes to wash. Just because your Friend or Loved One has cancer, doesn’t mean that all of a sudden their chores don’t need to be done.

What Not To Do

  • Asking for help is hard. Knowing what to ask for is even harder. Don’t assume that your Friend or Loved One will be able to express themselves, or ask for what they really might need. Don’t just say:
    • “What can I help you with?”
    • “Just let me know if there is anything I can do.”

What To Do

  • Decide what you are willing to do for your Friend or Loved One’s family. Do they have a dog? Do they have little kids? Do they have a big house?  Here are some helpful things you can say and do:
    • “I just made a casserole. I’ll bring it over around 5 pm.”
    • “I have some free time this week, and the next week, and the next. Can I drive you to any of your medical appointments?”
    • “I am practicing my dictation skills. Can I come to one of your appointments and take copious notes for you?”
    • “I’m going for a walk tomorrow morning. I’ll stop by and take Rover with me if you leave his leash out.” Even better, say that you will take Rover out every Tuesday morning.
    • “I just had an espresso. I’ll come over and mop your floor.”
    • “I’m going to take my kids (or my niece and nephew) to the children’s museum (or park, or McDonalds). We would love to have your kids join us. Does 1 o’clock sound okay?”
    • “I am going to the store, what can I pick up for you?”
  • If you already are at the house visiting your Friend or Loved One – just take charge.
    • Are there dishes in the sink that need washing? Wash them.
    • Is there laundry to be done? Really, who doesn’t have laundry to be done? Sort the clothes and start a load – even if you can’t finish it.
    • Ask where the sheets are and change the sheets on Your Friend or Loved One’s bed.
    • Bring over ingredients for a crock pot meal and start the crock pot.
    • Sweep the floor. Clean the counters. Vacuum. Get the mail. Water the plants (but not the silk ones).
Supper Club

Cooking meals for a family takes a lot of effort, even when there isn’t a breast cancer  diagnosis involved! The family may need a little help in that department.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t be afraid to offer to bring food. If you aren’t a gourmet cook, don’t sweat it. A great soup and crackers are underrated.
  • Don’t assume that just because your Friend or Loved One may not have an appetite, that the rest of the family doesn’t.

What To Do

  • Start a supper club for your Friend or Loved One and their family.
  • Break out your monthly calendar or download ours here. Ask each person that wants to contribute (but might not know how) to commit to bringing food for the family.
      • Fill in names and phone numbers (this will be handed to your Friend or Loved One so they can keep track too!)
    • Ask your Friend or Loved One if there are any dietary restrictions or preferences for their family.
    • Depending on the amount of people you can get to sign up, have at least one dinner per week brought in. Try to be consistent (every Wednesday, or every Tuesday and Thursday).
    • Figure out the best way to coordinate dinner delivery. Encourage containers and serving dishes that do not need to be returned.
    • Email Friend or Loved One’s friends:
      • To help with Friend or Loved One’s recovery, we are starting a Supper Club and here is how it works.
        • Tuesdays and Thursdays work best for the family.
        • Please check your calendar and choose a couple of dates that work for you (we are only asking you to pick one day out of your month).
        • We will confirm once everybody responds.
        • Either make dinner, or if you are not Julia Child, how about a gift certificate to Chinese food, or pizza, or some other restaurant that delivers.
        • Movie tickets or rentals, Jamba Juice, manicure/pedicure/massage gift certificates are also welcome items.
    • Send out the completed Supper Club Calendar so that people will remember what day they chose.
    • Don’t forget to send it to your Friend or Loved One so they can keep track of who is helping out.
  • If you prefer a bit more digital organizational help with a supper club, consider using Caringbridge.org’s support planner.
What About The Family?

When one person gets breast cancer, the entire family gets cancer. Families need support too! Your Friend or Loved One will appreciate you remembering their family also.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t always ask about Friend or Loved One to the other family members.
  • Don’t forget that the family is also going through this difficult time.

What To Do

  • If you are talking to the spouse, or child, ask how THEY are doing too.
  • Does Friend or Loved One’s spouse play golf? Tell them to go play and that you will stay and watch the children and be with your Friend or Loved One while they go play golf. If you are so inclined, a gift certificate (or even setting up a foursome) is even better.
  • Start a movie night, and call it “My Movie Pick of the Week”. Either purchase or rent a movie that the entire family can enjoy together. Classics are always a good choice (Wizard of Oz, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Harvey). You can even start a series – pick an actor and over the course of several months, bring a different movie they starred in. Example: Doris Day, Steve Martin, Jimmy Stewart, Goldie Hawn, Will Ferrell, Sean Connery.
    • Deliver the movie, Junior Mints and some microwave popcorn. (You can find microwave popcorn that comes in a movie bucket!)
      • If you are renting the movie, make sure that you tell the family that you will pick it up on a designated day to return it.
  • Offer to babysit the kids. And do it elsewhere so your Friend or Loved One can get some rest, or perhaps spend some alone time with their spouse.
  • Our vet is a friend of ours, and he offered to make house calls for my animals. What kind of house call can you make?
  • Use your imagination. What are some of your special skills that you could offer the family? One doesn’t always need money to make a difference.
After

Now your Friend or Loved One’s active treatment is completed. Did you know that “after” can still be an emotionally uncertain time? Moving beyond cancer is a process. There Is Life After Breast Cancer, however, everyone needs to understand it will be a different life.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t ever assume that the cancer is gone for good. Being in remission does not equal “being cured”.
  • Don’t assume your Friend or Loved One is “done” and will be back to her old self.  After cancer, there will be a new normal for your Friend or Loved One.  
  • Don’t think your Friend or Loved One doesn’t still need emotional support just because she is done with surgery/chemo/radiation.

What To Do

  • It’s okay to say, “I’m glad you kicked the *bleep* out of that. Let’s do something together to make a difference in the world.” It can be fun to participate in a breast cancer walk/race/bike together.
  • Although moving beyond cancer is sometimes an arduous process, having a friend to listen and be there is pretty special.
  • Offer to go to a support group with them, or help them find some of the many programs/retreats out there for cancer survivors. Our resources section has several.
  • Tell your Friend or Loved One to consider sharing their story with There Is Life After Breast Cancer. She can be an inspiration to others.
  • Remind her There Is Life After Breast Cancer.

 

Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals. Any ideas, advice, techniques, procedures, and suggestions on this website are not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of a trained health professional. All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. The collaborators disclaim any liability arising directly or indirectly from the use of these tools and tidbits, as these are provided as a courtesy.