How to Support a Friend Going Through Breast Cancer Treatment
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I interviewed two experts who have insight into what a patient's mindset is and how we can best support them. I am of the opinion that knowledge is power, and educating yourself as much as possible will help you be a better support system. Listen, Give and Educate are three topics I covered.
I chatted my friend Christina, who is a nurse that has spent extensive time in the oncology unit. Since she saw all the treatments, family/friend visits, and spent countless hours talking to patients and listening to their individual stories, she is an excellent resource. Here are her recommendations from a nurse's perspective:
Listen. This is the #1 thing you can do as a friend is listen. You don't have to have all the answers, but by being an active listener you are showing your love and support. If you don't know, ask. Ask your friend what you can do and what will be most helpful.
Bring food/beverages that sound good to them. Some days a strawberry milkshake will sound like heaven; others, it might turn their stomach. Ask your friend what sounds good to them that day. Side effects from treatments can cause mouth sores, so avoid anything acidic or irritating. Another side effect can be dry mouth, so hard candies in their favorite flavor can be a sweet treat to have on hand. Christina found ginger candies at Whole Foods and they worked twofold- helped calm nausea and assisted with dry mouth.
Assure them that they are not a burden. Often, your friends don't want to feel like a burden or that they are leaning too heavily on people. Let them know that you want to help, that you are here for them and are happy to assist.
Be present. Treatments can sometimes take all day, and it is lonely sitting in a room all by yourself. Offer to come to treatments, doctor visits or any other appointments they have. They might just like to have you in the room while they rest.
Bring distractions. Crossword puzzles, books, audio books, movies, music, sudoku, magazines, and anything else you think might pleasantly distract your friend make great gifts.
Make sure you are healthy. Immune systems are suppressed during treatment, especially the week after. If you are at all sick, even just a cough, postpone your in person visits until you are 100% well.
Buy something new for them that they wouldn't buy for themselves. A comfy robe, open front pajamas in their favorite color, new slippers or comfy socks, a warm hat or a faux fur throw are all comforting and chic.
Keep in touch. After treatment can be one of the most difficult times- the side effects from medications kick in. Send a text every so often checking in.
Set up a regular time to take the kids. Ask your friend if they would rather have an extra hand at home with the kids or if they would like some time at home alone while you take the kids out. Setting a regular time for this can help your friend plan.
If you are looking for a gift that will support the whole person during their journey with cancer, local company Thriveosity has created expertly curated monthly care packages. The concept was created by Dr. Ritu Trivedi-Purohit, a clinical psychologist who was driven to improve the quality of life for her patients and their caregivers.
ThriveBox contents focus on five categories, and special emphasis is placed on products that are natural, clean and organic:
- Nutrition (healthy and delicious artisinal products)
- Cognition (brain games and intellectual stimulation)
- Skin-Care (personal care products that help combat some symptoms from treatment)
- Aromatherapy (delightful scents and essential oils)
- The Basics (comfort items and essentials)
Another option is to give one of my favorite comfort items- Chilly Bear. This is a combo hot and cold pack that is cuddly instead of clinical. They have a special edition "Pink Bear" where $5 from every purchase goes to Breast Cancer Research.
My kids adore these- every time they have a boo boo, they ask for Chilly Bear through their tears. It is filled with natural corn (which is professionally sterilized) and non-toxic and void of chemicals that can occur in other hot/cold packs. Find out more information and grab yours here!
I also wanted to share information about the aftermath of treatment. What happens to a woman's body? What are the options for reconstructive surgery if she has a mastectomy? I interviewed Dr. Wiener, Chicago's Top Board Certified Plastic Surgeon regarding the physical, mental and emotional components of breast reconstruction surgery. Dr. Wiener is exactly the type of medical professional you want on your team- he is incredibly patient, takes his time to understand the physical outcome while taking into account the emotional toll this can take.
What kind of psychological effects do you see your patients having after getting a post-mastectomy reconstruction?
Usually they are very upbeat and enthusiastic post reconstruction. They feel like they have a fresh start and you can feel their optimism and see their happiness. Many times, when they are done with the reconstruction, they are also closing the chapter on that part of the illness. Even if they still have to undergo chemotherapy, the surgical part (which can sometimes be the most difficult) is over, and that is a tremendous relief to most women.
When do you recommend women speak with you who are considering reconstructive surgery?
Right after the diagnosis and when they’ve been told that they need a breast removed is the best time to discuss reconstruction. That way, I can coordinate with the Oncology Surgeon who is going to do the mastectomy to develop an individual treatment plan. If possible, we would perform the first stage of the reconstruction at the time of the mastectomy. The nice part about doing it all together is that there is not one moment where the patient has to experience not having a breast.
Where is tissue taken from for the reconstruction? How does this affect recovery?
There are two ways to reconstruct a breast. One way is with breast implants, and the other is by using tissue from the abdomen or buttock. In most cases, it is the abdomen. It is a longer, more complex surgery that requires a little more recovery time, but in many cases, you can have a breast made of completely natural tissue and you might not need an implant at all. We have seen some of the most natural reconstructions with that option. The other option is to place an implant in right away, or through a two-stage procedure where you first put in a tissue expander. This is a very effective procedure that expands the chest skin over a period of several months so there is enough skin available for the implant to be put in place. The use of implants works best when patients have had a bilateral mastectomy (both breasts) because it gives women a more appealing and symmetrical look.
What are the reasons women decide upon reconstructive surgery post-mastectomy?
They want to feel like nothing is missing from their body – like a whole woman. It’s a very personal, very integral part of a woman’s body. Most women don’t want to lose their breasts, but if they have to, they want to find a way to reconstruct it. Some of the older women who have to undergo a mastectomy sometimes choose not to have a reconstruction due to the stresses of additional surgery. But I’ve seen cases where an active, vital older women wants to have a breast reconstruction, and she should be able to do that.
How does breast reconstruction psychologically impact a woman in your experience?
For most women, having a breast reconstruction means that they don’t have to go through a prolonged period of existing without a breast. It’s reassuring for women to know that what was taken from them, will be restored. The psychological impact of not being able to wear the same clothes, or look the same way they used to can be very discouraging and depressing. Some women liken it to being an amputee – as they do not feel complete. And a breast reconstruction can help them to feel whole again, to feel like a woman again.