CANCER CARE

Caring for Someone with Breast Cancer

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
 | 
April 14, 2016

Don’t be afraid to talk about sex or self-esteem after surgery.

Strong emotional support helps patients and survivors adjust to the many changes cancer brings to their lives. As a primary caregiver — or someone in the immediate circle — you help make life worthwhile. 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide. In 2016, an estimated 246,660 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. alone. 

 

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The most common signs of cancer are a change in the look or feel of the breast or nipple or a discharge from the nipple — although even these symptoms may be harmless. Most breast cancers are discovered during a routine mammogram

Be clear on this: a diagnosis is not a death sentence. No one dies from breast cancer that remains in the breast. The spread of cancerous cells to a vital organ is what kills. This is called “metastasis.” 

Metastatic breast cancer, also known as mbc, stage IV or advanced breast cancer, is cancer that has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes under the arm, most commonly to the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.

In a case of breast cancer that has spread, about half of women survive for more than three years, and half die within that period. 

As a caregiver, the best gift is to listen and share your questions and feelings. You don’t have to offer opinions or solutions. It helps to gather information, but there’s plenty available, and your doctors should be responsive. Respect your loved one’s decisions. That includes decisions about medical care and what other people can do. 

Coordinate offers from friends and family to visit. With the patient’s permission, you can let people know when it’s okay to visit in a hospital room and how long to stay.

Recognize a “new normal” — patients and caregivers report feeling a loss of control after a cancer diagnosis, so you’ll need to accept that routines, finances, and social ties may change for a time. Manage each day’s priority as it comes. If you need time off from your job, be aware that organizations with 50 or more employees must, by law, allow you up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a spouse, child, or parent. 

A broader circle can help with chores. For weekly and monthly chores, consider assigning them to family and close friends. Also keep a list of smaller tasks, so you can offer specific choices when someone asks, “Is there anything I can do?” Don’t be afraid to admit that you can’t do it all yourself. 

 

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You might designate a family member or friend who can help field phone calls regarding your loved one's progress.

If you have children in the home, allow them to step in with more duties. 

Plan ahead, anticipating celebrations for milestones in treatment. Also take care of the paperwork related to illness and death. If neither of you have ever created a health care proxy, you can each do one and gather signatures together. 

Organize special times together away from the routine of treatment, dinner out, or a driving trip.

Mind your own health as a caregiver, keeping your regular appointments, and maintaining good diet, exercise, and sleep habits. You may find that meditation, yoga, and listening to music help you stay calm. 

Mini-breaks will replenish your energy and lower your stress. Try simple activities like taking a walk around the block or closing your eyes for 10 minutes in a comfortable chair.

If you are a spouse or close friend, talk to your loved one about sex. An estimated 85 to 90 percent of the 6 million female cancer survivors in the country have problems with sex. Many are too modest to talk about it with their doctors, or think they should be grateful they’re alive and not push for more. Often in couples you both feel less sexy; a man may not want to make demands and a woman may feel less desirable. Talk it out, with doctors and therapists if needed. A woman may need time to regain her sex drive after chemotherapy or losing a breast, but that doesn’t mean her sex life is over.  

 

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Breast cancer resources

  • Susan G. Komen funds research and provides education and support through its helpline (1-877-GO-KOMEN or 1-877-465-6636), online message boards, local support groups, and financial assistance to patients. 
  • Metastatic Breast Cancer Network offers a variety of support groups, on message boards, and by phone, as well as in person, for people with advanced breast cancers.  
  • Young Survival Coalition can match you with another young woman with an advanced cancer. Email: resourcelink@youngsurvival.org, or call 877-YSC-1011.
  • Living Beyond Breast Cancer (888-753-5222) also can match you with a peer counselor with metastatic breast cancer. 
  • Support Connection, Inc. (800-532-4290) connects you to breast cancer survivors. 
  • SHARE breast cancer helpline (1-866-891-2392) can match you with a trained volunteer who is living with metastatic breast cancer. 

Cancer resources

  • CancerCare offers financial assistance and free face-to-face, telephone, and online support groups led by professional oncology social workers. You can also get telephone and in-person counselling as a caregiver or cancer patient. 
  • Cancer Support Community provides a helpline (1-888-793-9355) as well as online chat support and online, professionally led support groups for caregivers and patients.
  • American Cancer Society trains breast cancer survivors to volunteer as support people face to face or by phone. 

 

Updated:

April 14, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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