Breast cancer – how to help

Here is some guidance for that first dreadful moment when you learn that someone you care about has breast cancer.

Send cards and emails. Just a short little note will do. She isn’t scrutinizing your words; she is just happy to know that another person is rooting for her. Send eCard.
Make sure she knows you do not expect a reply to emails or phone calls.
Send a card addressed specifically to her husband or partner. They need attention and support too.

Send along any information about local doctors. A good referral can help her feel more confident in her choices.
Take her kids somewhere fun so she can return calls and talk openly. The weeks just after a diagnosis involve many decisions that require much discussion and consideration. Kids can make that very difficult.
Offer to spread the word for her to anyone in particular she wants to know. She may feel guilty that she is unable to call certain people personally. It will ease her mind if you can call special friends and gently share her news.
Volunteer to do specific tasks, like bringing dinner by or dropping off some groceries.
Alert her to as a great resource of the most current information on diagnostic tests, treatment options, etc.


Be afraid to reach out even if you don’t know her well. A card is always appreciated.
Ask for too much detail or explanation; she is reporting out to many people and may need a break.
Expect her to call you back promptly.


In the early days, she may feel cut off by comments like: “My friend had breast cancer two years ago and she’s fine!”
Some books, like Lance Armstrong’s, might overwhelm her. His cancer was extreme and his chemo experience may scare her.
Every message counts. Your note or call may not feel like much to you, but combined with every other note or call she gets, it becomes a tidal wave of support to carry her from the initial shock into the beginning of treatment Boosting her spirits LUCKY CHARMS Jade for healing, shamrocks for luck, pink stones for breast cancer, angels for protection. Your friend might like to keep a charm in their “chemo bag” or their pocket while they get treatment.

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LIPSTICK Without hair, your friend might feel a little less lovely. A new lipstick might perk her up as she combs through her headgear looking for the right hat or scarf for the day. JEWELRY Earrings might make your friend feel more feminine while she is bald. Bracelets and necklaces can be a great reminder of all the people who support her. MANICURES & PEDICURES Relaxing, quality time and they leave your friend looking more like a woman (something baldness can take away). Pedicures in massage chairs can be especially restorative.
HATS & SCARVES Your friend may find getting dressed to be difficult, since every outfit requires something to cover her head. A good variety of hats and scarves can make this frustrating task easier.
WIG SHOPPING Your friend may or may not want company while she looks at caner chemo wigs. Just offering to find a good local wig shop and drive her over may make her feel less alone.
HOLIDAY DECORATIONS Little things like carving pumpkins or getting a wreath up quickly get overlooked. It can really lift your friend’s spirits to see her front step decorated.
ART SUPPLIES For women with a creative side, art can be a great release and help purge emotions that are hard to put words to. Sketching, embroidery, jewelry making, sewing…these can offer a chance to accomplish something while resting at the same time.
MUSIC Homemade mixed CDs or relaxation CDs can help your friend turn a long afternoon in bed into a period of total relaxation.
PORTABLE MUSIC PLAYER Have friends chip in for an iPod or a CD player so your friend can listen during chemo or in bed.
BOOKS & RADIO PROGRAMS on CD There are some great comedians and humorists on CD, as well as experts and authors who stimulate the mind.
GARDENING It can be depressing to see your garden brown and wither from lack of attention. Spending a few minutes dead-heading and weeding your friend’s garden will make your friend smile every time she looks at it.
PLANTS & FLOWERS Flowers already in vases require no work and look great. Plants can be depressing if they brown easily or die quickly. Try orchids for something low maintenance, long lasting and beautiful.
CONCERT & MOVIE TICKETS Music and movies can really take your friend away from her pain and are easy to enjoy even when she is not feeling 100%. Most movie theaters sell gift certificate packs.
RESTAURANT GIFT CERTIFICATES Even if your friend can afford their own dinner bill, they might be spending so much on all the extra babysitting that they don’t feel like they should go out to a nice dinner. Try Curediva gift card for breast cancer patients.
DONATIONS TO BREAST CANCER ORGANIZATIONS See here for a list of major organizations that will put your dollars to work in the fight against breast cancer.
SUSAN G. KOMEN RACE FOR THE CURE Participate in The Race for the Cure and send pictures of yourself at the finish line to your friend.
LANCE ARMSTRONG BRACELETS Buy a bunch and distribute them throughout your friend’s circle of supporters. She’ll be reminded of all the folks who love her every time she sees the yellow band.
MAGAZINES Avoid fashion magazines that always seem to have a cover article about hair. Look for magazines about hobbies; gardening, travel, food, home decor. You might even buy your friend a subscription so they feel your support over a long period of time.
BOOKS It can be hard to decide between fiction and non-fiction. You know your friend best. For specific titles recommended by Breast Cancer patients, click here. You will also see books recommended for your friend’s husband and children.
VISITS TO CHEMO Don’t be afraid. Even stopping by for a few minutes can be such a nice break from the monotony of chemo. Bring a magazine or a soda for her husband or partner.
LETTERS WITH PHOTOS Fighting cancer can get boring. A great break from the monotony might be to hear about your life and see recent pictures of your family.
EMAILS You can really never send enough little notes of encouragement, especially as treatment drags on and support starts to wane. Make a point of saying something like, “No need to reply, just thinking of you”
CARDS Keep sending them, especially as treatment drags on.
CALLS Click here to see a great Do’s and Don’ts list about talking to someone with cancer.
FUNNY OLD PICTURES Dig around and see if you have some old photos from high school or college that will make your friend burst out laughing.
When your friend starts radiation, she’ll be required to switch to all natural soaps and deodorants to protect her skin from added irritation. She’ll also use aloe three times a day for several months. So, a neat care package to get her started is: all natural aloe, soap and deod0rant (try brands like Trader Joe’s or Tom’s of Maine).
Cancer makes writers, or say they say. Your friend might find herself wanting to record some of her experience on paper.
BUTTON FRONT SHIRTS (and bras that close in front)
This is something you might do for a very close friend, since this will save her from having to change into a gown for every exam, and will serve her well in the days after surgery.
Your friend might decide to eat differently, to help fight off cancer and stop it from recurring. A basket of treats might help her get started: Flaxseed anything (bread, granola, etc), Omega 3 Eggs, Broccoli, Spinach, Green Tea and some of those fancy waters will cover some of the bases.


This is a lifesaver for moms with breast cancer. It may be hard for your friend to ask for so just tell her what time you’ll be in the driveway.
Your friend may feel like her children have not had as much playtime lately as they deserve. Taking her children out for some fun allows her to rest easy, knowing they are having a great time with your family.
Husbands of breast cancer patients are usually woefully overlooked. Send him a note of encouragement every time you send her one
He may not choose to talk about his wife’s breast cancer but he’ll know that you are there for him. Try him at work or on his cell so can talk freely about how the experience feels for him.
Her husband may want to see the latest article about Lumpectomies or Radiation Treatment Protocols.
A couple of treats and some basic staples help keep the fridge stocked for everyone.
Send over some new water color paints or molding clay to keep her kids happily occupied while she rests.
Click here to see books recommended for your friend’s husband and children. See link.
DVDs, dress ups, trains…you know your friend’s children best.
Little things like carving pumpkins or getting a wreath up quickly get overlooked. This can be unsettling for children.
Schedule a night of take out and board games with her family. She can play in her pajamas. CHEMO TOTE BAG Every chemo day starts by packing a bag of goodies to pass the time in the Infusion Center. The Circus of Cancer Infusion Essentials tote has a check list printed right on it to remind your friend to bring the doctor’s orders, her insurance card, her knitting needles and all the patience she can muster.   COORDINATE MEAL DROP OFFS During chemo, many people may want to bring your friend meals. It is a truly wonderful gift to have a point person schedule the meals so there is no overlap. [There are easy ways to do this online, like Yahoo! Groups.] DROP OFF A MEAL If you don’t cook, send over a pizza or some take out. If you like to cook, organic food is best. Nutrionists recommend free-range chicken, broccoli, and fruits. Red meat, fortified grains and leafy greens are also great sources of iron to help with chemo-related anemia. Send meals over in disposable dishes so your friend doesn’t need to sort out tupperware returns later on. GROCERIES Dry mouth is a common side effect of chemo, so moist soft foods like yogurt and custards, juicy fruits like oranges and sugar free gum are handy to have around. Also, staples for the whole family help keep the fridge stocked for everyone. HOUSE CLEANING Join forces with other friends to pay for additional house cleaning. Try to schedule the cleaning while your friend is in chemo, so they come to home to clean house and fresh bed. LOTIONS AND BATH BUBBLES Chemo can make your friend’s skin dry and itchy, so a moisturizing bath and some good body lotion can really help. Some lotions include aromatherapy and extra ingredients for joint and muscle aches, which are common chemo side effects. KNITTING SUPPLIES Many women with breast cancer knit away in the chemo chair. Look for pattern books for small projects, like hats or children’s scarves.

VISITS TO CHEMO This is a labor of love. Even stopping by for a few minutes can be such a nice break from the monotony of chemo. Bring a magazine or a carbonated water for her husband or partner. LUCKY CHARMS Jade for healing, Shamrocks for luck, Pink stones for breast cancer, Angels for strength. Your friend might like to keep a charm in their “chemo bag” or their pocket while they get treatment. JEWELRY Earrings might make your friend feel more feminine while she is bald. Bracelets and necklaces can be a great reminder of all the people who support her. LIPSTICK Without hair, your friend might feel a little less lovely. A new lipstick might perk her up as she combs through her headgear looking for the right hat or scarf for the day. f you feel nervous about talking with your friend, here are some pointers from cancer patients.

Be yourself and don’t be afraid.

Your friend doesn’t expect perfection. Some people have a knack for expression, some people are lost. Your friend sees that you care and that you are doing your best.
Don’t push advice.
You probably don’t know enough about her case to really be useful. It can be tiresome to hear “My friend Paula had breast cancer and she said that her doctors recommended chemo every week…”
When in doubt, email an offer of help or companionship.
Unreturned phone calls can be a weight on your friend. Also, the phone ringing might wake her up or force her to think about cancer during a time when she is not. Always end a message with “No need to reply; I am just thinking about you.”
Listen more than you talk.
You are there for her. Give her some runway to talk about whatever’s on her mind …an annoying insurance problem, a funny card she got, an aching back, her old car that isn’t selling.
Don’t force the cancer conversation.
If she’s trying to talk about her husband’s nasty boss, and you came to get the latest update on her treatment, stick with the nasty boss stories. Cancer isn’t the only thing going on her life.
Don’t expect her to follow up on every suggestion.
Many people will suggest that she call their friend who had breast cancer or read a new article about an ongoing clinical trial. These can be very helpful, but can also feel like another thing for the To Do list. Just pass the info along in a card or email and leave it there.


Take off your coat, sit down, turn off your cell phone. If your friend starts to open up and vent, stay with her. It helps to tell your friend up front how long you can spend so she doesn’t worry that her mood sent you packing.
Don’t rush her through the hard stuff. Your friend is sick, scared, bald, uncomfortable, and tired. Try not to quickly stifle these truths with platitudes like, “You’ve got to stay positive” and “This is going to be over soon”. Let her complain and cry and feel a little self pity before you start to help her put herself back together again.
Respect her experience. Don’t say “I know how you feel” unless you actually do. Don’t say “My friend had the exact same thing and she’s doing great.” Every cancer case has unique elements It is often difficult to know how best to support your friend’s husband or partner. Here is some insight from Edward Lichty, whose wife had Stage III Breast Cancer and was in treatment for nine months.

How supported did you feel during your wife’s treatment? Did your friends seem to know what to do to help you?
My friends are great guys but honestly, most of them were pretty tongue tied during Kelly’s treatment. I know they wanted to help but I also know they didn’t have any idea what to do. Except my friend, Graham. He really stepped up.
What did he do?
He called and emailed a lot. He tracked our progress. He didn’t disappear once treatment got going. He kept calling and asking questions. He was really interested in the day to day reality of what we were going through and was comfortable enough in our friendship to ask.
So, asking questions is OK? It’s not invasive or irritating?
I liked talking about Kelly’s treatment; what drugs she was on, how long her infusions were, what choices we were making, how her tumor was reacting. I liked sharing the facts. I liked explaining the process. A lot of people avoided the topic, or stayed really general, like “How is everything going?” It was hard to tell if they really were interested in the details or if they were just being nice. In most cases, I think maybe they were so concerned about saying the wrong thing that they didn’t say much at all. I don’t really blame them, because when I’ve had other friends going through difficult or sensitive situations, I’ve been as tongue tied as anyone. I realize now that it’s better to risk saying the wrong thing than to say little or nothing.

Were there things that people asked that you didn’t like?

I never felt totally comfortable when people would ask, “How are YOU doing, Edward?” especially if they asked me in certain settings, like a cocktail party or at the park with the kids. What do you say to that? The answer is far more complex than anyone really wants to hear. I also never knew what to say when people said “If there’s anything I can do, just call me.” It’s so unrealistic. I would never call someone to ask for a favor like that. It’s better to just suggest something specific, like “Hey, do you want us to take the kids to a movie on Saturday so you and Kelly can have some peace and quiet?”
Did your friends take you out much during your wife’s treatment? To play golf or see a ball game?
Many guys offered but I felt like it was important for me to be home, with Kelly and the kids. I didn’t feel like I should be out relaxing with the guys while Kelly was home in bed. But since she finished treatment, I have had some great times out with my friends. I have a lot to celebrate and I earned a day of golf or a night of poker.
So now that you’ve been through it, what will you do if your friend’s wife is diagnosed?
I will be present. I will show an interest in the details of what cancer is like for him and his wife. I will stop in during chemo treatments, call him while his wife is in surgery, track him down at work to get an update, and make plans to do some celebrating with him after it’s all over. GIFTS Visit the Circus of Cancer gift shop to see a smattering of presents specifically designed to make the cancer patient in your life smile. You’ll see t-shirts, a tote bag, a coffee mug and a hat and nothing costs more than $14.00.
HATS and such
Founded by a breast cancer survivor, Head Covers sells stylish hats, turbans, scarves, and wigs for women. The hat selection is huge including berets, baseball hats, cowboy hats, soft turbans for sleeping and tons of cute hats for every season.
Stay aware from beauty magazines, which almost always have articles about hair mentioned on the cover. Some all purpose magazines that will keep her mind elsewhere are National Geographic, Smithsonian, Parents, O Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. For magazines that might match one of her hobbies,


Avon has it all for great prices, and they are known for their reliable support to the breast cancer community. Also, Sephora aggregates all beauty products and even has a GIFT IDEAS link from the home page.
Your pal may spend a lot of time recovering from chemo in front of the television. If you live nearby, you can check out DVDs from the library (but remember, you’ll have to return them to the library a couple days later!) Subscriptions to netflix or a couple new DVDs can make that time much more enjoyable.
You might also send your friend a pack of gift certificates to AMC Theaters, so she can head to the movies whenever she needs an escape. You can even buy her certificates for concessions, like popcorn and soda.


For pajamas and slippers, I recommend Sleepy Heads for great prints and choices and PajamaGrams for their adorable packaging.


A woman can never get enough flowers, especially during long stretches of treatment where she may feel forgotten. ButterfieldÕs Blooms has gorgeous bouquets for about $80. For something more affordable, try FTD.