When given a breast cancer diagnosis, a patient’s first thought may be concern for her life. After the initial fear and digestion of the treatment options from medical staff, the day-to-day details of dealing with and living through treatment must be sorted through.
For many women, the healing process will include both a physical and a psychological component. Whether going through lumpectomy, mastectomy, or bilateral mastectomy, the breast cancer patient is going to endure a radical change in how she appears. Post surgical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are time consuming, exhausting, and have further psychological impacts. The fact is, the breast cancer patient has to learn to deal with life being radically and permanently changed, even when the surgical implications are minimal. Hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and depression are very common side effects from cancer treatment. Treatment can extend over a period of a year. Clearly, women with breast cancer need support.
Fortunately, there are lots of options for getting that support. For women who do not have close friends or family nearby, there are still resources. Treatment centers often have local support groups. Cancer Care offers free support services for anyone affected by cancer–including loved ones of patients. Additionally, Look Good Feel Better is a nonprofit organization which offers support to women in how to gain confidence about how they look during the many physical changes they undergo during treatment. Patients should ask their oncologists for more local community resources. Many times oncology offices have on-site classes for nutrition, fitness, and other related concerns.
But perhaps most important during this time is a sense of personal support that a community brings. Perhaps someone at church, or at the kids’ school, has asked how he or she can help. It is vital for the patient to be open to help and not feel “weak” for accepting it. In fact, a good plan is to choose one or two very reliable friends or relatives who has asked to help, and designate him or her as the “help coordinator.” This person(s) can be the direct contact with the patient, determining what she needs, and then delegating help to those who have offered. Many people are often surprised about just how many people want to help. Breast cancer affects so many with no real concrete causes. Others, even those who may not be close to the patient, have family who have gone through treatment, or simply know that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The support coordinators can find out each volunteer’s area of ability and then arrange help as needed. Online calendars can be used for volunteers to sign up to cook dinners–that way a dozen casseroles don’t arrive on the first day of chemo, with none to follow. People may want to help but not know how–the coordinator(s) can give volunteers the direction they need. Perhaps a monetary donation can be taken for housecleaning services, or volunteers can come do housekeeping. Others can help by driving the patient to and from chemotherapy treatments and keeping her company during the 4-6 hours each treatment takes. If the patient has young children, babysitting and carpooling help will be invaluable. Someone can collect donated recent magazines for reading material during the days the patient feels least well; someone else can come over and mow the lawn or rake the leaves. There is plenty of help to be had–usually it just takes someone other than the patient who has the time and organizational skills to make the most out of all the community resources available.
People often tend not to ask for help, especially women–they think they can and must soldier on and go it alone. At the same time, people are also usually very eager to help others, even in what might seem to be a small way. The key to enduring breast cancer treatment with the best outcome is not just to have the best doctors available. It’s about admitting that help is needed and letting the goodness in others manifest itself. There will be plenty of time, and plenty of opportunities later, to return the favors.