When Your Best Friend Has Breast Cancer
by Sandy Rensvold
If someone you love is diagnosed with breast cancer, your support will be an important part of treatment.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), most people with cancer want to share the diagnosis with those closest to them. As a best friend, you will probably be one of the first to know. Initially, it will be an unsettling, emotional time for you both. You will have to deal with your own feelings of vulnerability and mortality, as well as the stresses of helping a friend cope.
Being a Best Friend
As a best friend, you will be there for her during times of hope and despair, courage and fear, humor and anger, and the unknown. You may be the outlet for feelings she may not be able to express to anyone else. For example, anger is a common feeling. Many emotions, like fear or worry, come out in anger. Just remember to not take it personally, she is counting on you.
Best friends know each other's coping rituals, whether it is a good cry, talking, a mouthful of expletives, or temporary withdrawal. My own best friend immediately responded to her diagnosis of breast cancer in her usual manner—a take charge attitude with a dash of humor. As Betty Rollins, a breast cancer survivor and author of First You Cry, wrote: "Cancer won't bestow a sense of humor on someone who doesn't have it, but a sense of humor can sure get you through the experience.''
Being Part of the Family
Cancer is a family affair, and all involved will ride the emotional roller coaster that comes with the diagnosis and treatment. Since your best friend's loved ones may rely on you for information and direction, it is important to be available. On the other hand, you do not want to hamper or discourage family members from participating. You can offer your help, such as attending appointments and taking notes. Medical research indicates that patients hear a small percentage of what is discussed during the initial diagnostic period, their thoughts instead being on jobs, family responsibilities, and the physical effects on their bodies.
There are times when all your friend needs to know is that things are being taken care of. If she has a family, reassure her that her husband and children will have lunches, rides, and hot meals.
Keeping Friends Involved
As the word spreads, your friend may not be ready to discuss her condition. Going public with her diagnosis is her decision and must be respected. Enter you, her best friend. You might suggest that someone record a phone message that relays updates or asks callers to phone you. As a designated interceptor, you can tell callers that their concern is appreciated, but that she is not ready to talk at length just yet.
When my best friend developed cancer, many acquaintances anguished about what to say and what to do. I explained her determination to focus on doing well. She wanted encouragement instead of sympathy. Some became very creative. One bombarded her with humorous cards throughout the chemotherapy treatments. Another called and asked if she noticed a huge smoke cloud in the east—he had been to Mass and lit all the church candles.
Asking Too Many Questions
In-depth questions and comments about someone's illness may seem well intended, but are often better left unsaid. To a person with cancer, it can sound insensitive, repetitious, depressing, and be a constant reminder of her illness. "I appreciated everyone's concern, but I wanted to feel like a regular person and treated as such. To me, that was uplifting," explains my best friend. "I felt uncomfortable constantly being asked how I felt."
Let your friend guide the conversation. Sometimes good old-fashioned gossip is just the distraction she needs.
Just Being There
Regardless of a support system, having cancer can be a lonely time. Some days it was difficult for my friend to believe she was getting better because she felt so horrible. A "you'll feel better tomorrow" false cheer does not work. It is better to say, "I'm sorry you do not feel well, I am here," even though doing nothing is difficult. Offer to be there for one minute, the next, and the next. On bad days, "I'm here" are two of the most supportive words anyone can say.
The "do something" role is endless. As a friend, it was important for me to remember that she still wanted to do things we always did. Although some outings were limited, they allowed her to feel normal.
Hair loss is a devastating side effect of many chemotherapy treatments. Offer to go along for the wig selection because you may be the only person with whom she is comfortable revealing her hair loss.
Call and arrange a "feel good time," such as a massage, facial, or manicure. My friend loved her special treat on days when her recovery was questionable.
I introduced "Feel Good" multiple choice sheets and "Just for You" lists as a way of letting her know I was available, while leaving her in control. It was also an outlet for the humor that was so important to her. The events for multiple choice sheets can be lunch, a walk, or an ice cream cone. Choices for lunch may be (a) sounds good, (b) I will take a rain check, (c) I want to be alone, or (d) only if Leonardo DiCaprio shows up. "Just for You" check lists included grocery shopping, doing laundry, making meals, weeding the garden, or other tasks she does not feel up to doing.
Even Better Friends
Shortly after the diagnosis, my friend met a postcancer patient while taking bridge lessons. My friend's newest best friend continues to be a valuable on-call resource in the "been there, done that" category.
Today our friendship has greater depth and has grown outside the realm of her cancer. We do not ignore the cancer, but we do not focus on it, either. As a popular song says, "…through good times and bad times, I'll be on your side for ever more. That's what friends are for."
National Cancer Institute
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
Canadian Cancer Society
When someone you love is being treated for cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/when-someone-you-love-is-being-treated. Updated January 2012. Accessed January 18, 2017.
What a friend can do. Cancer and Careers website. Available at:
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Accessed January 18, 2017.
What You Need to Know as a Cancer Caregiver. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
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Accessed January 18, 2017.
Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 1/15/2015
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