Ideas from people who have been there
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My best friend Kelly passed away in June 2005 from advanced breast cancer. It has taken me a long time to be able to talk about her and our battle with her cancer. Toward the later part of her life, I found that the simple things that we once enjoyed when she was well worked the same way toward the end of her life. For instance, when Kelly would get down on herself or felt that she could not take it anymore, I tried my best to give her as much support as possible. Given the fact that she was bed-ridden I would rent movies for us to watch, make lunch/dinner that we could both enjoy together, play games, and at times we just needed to talk. I always wanted her to feel comfortable confiding in me regardless of the subject matter or a fear of her hurting my feelings. Bottom line, whatever I could do to provide her with support, comfort, and some happiness, that's what was important. As hard as those times were, I wouldn’t trade them for anything, as I so much enjoyed just being together.
As a 52-year old nurse, the last thing I expected when I awoke from breast cancer surgery, was a little bean-bag lion. Yet Squiffles comforted me when I was alone, soaked up my tears and let me squeeze him tight while hiding under the bedclothes. He didn't turn from my tears or look at me with pity. Every cancer survivor should have a cuddly toy who will be there when no one else can be.
I was 44 when I was diagnosed and I got through it by focusing on how lucky I was that I had 44 wonderful years of great health and loving family. No matter what happened to me at that point, I held on to the fact that I was so blessed to have had that 44 years when there were people in this world that had much, much less. Take good care of yourself, be your own advocate and before you know it, it becomes a past memory that has made you stronger than you ever believed you could be.
Going through breast cancer is a real rollercoaster ride of emotions for both you and your spouse. Sometimes she may be feeling worried while you are feeling upbeat and hopeful. You may be feeling scared about losing her while she is feeling confident of beating the disease. You really need to be aware and respectful of each other's feelings as you both are on that wild rollercoaster ride.
My tip is "be my chemo buddy". My husband planned to accompany me to all my treatments (9 months, weekly), but I knew it would get a little tedious, Just to have someone sit with you for three hours, maybe get you another cup of tea or coffee, really meant a lot. Also, a Kindle or an Amazon gift card to buy books. It's much easier to bring to the doctor appointments and treatments.
Remember the date of an anniversary, be it of the surgery, or being told they were in remission, whatever is meaningful to the person living with cancer- and celebrate with them that they are still alive with you. Just remember- celebrate them.
Life may be different now, because you must focus on you and loving yourself takes on a whole new but wonderful meaning.
I was deeply comforted by uplifting and healing music during my breast cancer journey, Listening to positive lyrics helped me tremendously when I was struggling. I would sing out loud during the worst of times, releasing fear and stress. The music reminded me that i was on the path to healing, was loved dearly and that i still could find joy and something to be grateful for daily. While in chemo, I brought CD's and offered them to anyone who was interested. I am about to celebrate my one year anniversary. I continue to offer the gift of music.
When I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer , it was 1 1/2 years after my husband lost his job and our insurance. Times were very hard. We didn't have safe drinking water, a reliable car, money for gas or food, but I got a few cards from people who knew me. And I got a few dollars, some water, a watermelon and a head scarf. I looked and cried at those few cards of care with such gratitude. Having no income is hard. Breast cancer is hard! People that care, priceless!
My daughter started a website for me at CaringBridges.org. She put in a journal entry letting friends and family know about my breast cancer diagnosis. She then notified everyone that she knew would like to keep informed of my journey. I have had over 1,400 guestbook entries from so many caring people. The encouragement, prayers and well wishes keep me smiling and most important, hopeful that I will have a complete recovery. It's a great way to keep in touch and on those days when you just don't feel like talking it is an excellent vehicle for people to keep up to date.
When I got diagnosed last year, my best friend and I went and got pink ribbon tattoos together (her idea). She's been by my side through EVERY aspect of the surgery and treatment, she's awesome!
During chemo the smell of any food cooking turned my stomach and I did not feel good enough to stand and make a salad (I live alone.) Helping those who are alone by bringing them food with no aroma once in a while- even a cold pizza- could make a big difference.
My tip is don't try to do everything- pick and choose what you can do and don't feel guilty letting the rest go. Take care of yourself first, be good to yourself and treat yourself to a special hair care product when your hair is back. Do get massages when you can- they have really helped me with my double mastectomy and reconstruction. Surviving seems harder for me than the treatments, but I've learned to live each day- it's taken me a while to get over the fear and enjoy each day, give yourself time.
When I got to work on my last day of radiation, my desk was full of pink balloons and each person in the office had hand written a personal note. There were flowers from my kids (where a donation from the florist had been made to Susan G. Komen) and a gift card to my favorite restaurant.
One of my most memorable experiences going through radiation treatments for my breast cancer was becoming friends with my "waiting room" buddies. There were a handful of us who had appointments every day around the same time. Sharing information, hugs, laughs and tears helped "normalize" the experience. I felt less alone, and found that lifting other's spirit's also lifted mine.
At a time when things seemed and felt unsettling and dismal, I focused on my abundant blessings and being grateful. I went to task on planning my 50th Birthday (5 months after my bilateral mastectomy)- either a "wigging out" party or a luau-style benefit bash for a local cancer center. I chose the latter. I was blessed to have two insurance coverages, a talented medical team, and to be surrounded with so much love and compassion from family, friends and co-workers. I needed nothing more with all of the prayers and positive energy. I have established an annual Pink Power Day at my school where I have served as the school counselor for 15 years. I want my kiddos and their families to be empowered with information on early detection and resources in the community.
My dear friend went to every chemo session with me. She picked me up early on infusion days and we stopped at the market for treats for all of the patients and co-survivors int he "chemo lounge". Ginger cookies and crackers were the best snacks. One of the other patients brought a fabric crown that everyone wore to commemorate their final day of treatment.
In the first five years, I was scared. After that my mom told me to forget about it. (She is also a survivor- 35 years.) My view is the more you think about it, the more stressed you can get. And stress is not condusive to survival. So thank your lucky stars if you have made it through and don't worry. It may happen again, it may not. But worrying will get you nowhere because it will take your focus away from the life that is happening around you...as in your children. Take it from me, it was tough. I lost my beautiful hair, had boys 8 and 9 to deal with and treatments. But all is well. Just don't concentrate on the negative...believe you have conquered it.
"You are more than your job, your role, your last success of your last mistake.
You are more than the car, the money, the house, and the stuff...
What you have or have not is all meaningless.
You are how you make others feel...the kindness, the love, the blessings you share.
All these are priceless...and free."- C. Maloney
Doctors don't always mention that things like massages, spa treatments and nutritional supplements can make treatment easier to handle. You can help your family and friends going through treatment with information, gift certificates or just encouragement to do things like that for themselves.
Mary Jo, co-survivor
A co-worker's wife has been combating cancer for the last two years. In an attempt to help the family, I decided to cook a meal for them. One act of reaching out with a single meal has turned into meals several times a month. This family has been so grateful and my heart has been so full to know that I have been able to do a little something to help.
Women who develop breast cancer in their thirties face different circumstances than older patients do. Dealing with premature menopause, hormonal issues and the idea that I may never be able to have children made me feel like I was standing by watching while everyone around me made plans for the future. You can help people in this situation by recognizing they are struggling with a lot of other issues in addition to the cancer itself.
When my daughter finished chemotherapy, I wanted to celebrate the occasion. I asked every friend, and friend of a friend, to send a funny, uplifting card that would reach her on her last day of treatment. My goal was 100 cards. She actually received over 200! Although several cards started trickling in prior to her last treatment, the majority came on that last day. She was so surprised and enjoyed the support, encouragement & prayers.
Breast cancer survivors should help those starting out on the journey. Communication and support is essential for the newly diagnosed. When you have been there, you can sometimes offer advice that a doctor can't, like about what to do when you start losing your hair, and about the importance of diet and exercise, believing in God and reaching out to others for support. You can help new patients realize they're not alone in this fight.
My wife and I have been on our journey now for 5½ years. Reflecting on the journey, I realize there are several phases to it. Initially there is a flurry of activity. The victim gets lots of support from medical staff, family and friends. As the activity lessens, so does the attention and support for her. As her husband, it's my role to be sure that I always "remember" because I realize she'll never forget.
When my mom was diagnosed and had to be scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy, I recruited friends and family to help me put together a scrapbook of cards, prayers, well-wishes, jokes - anything to brighten her day. I gave it to her in the hospital and now she has it at home to help her through tough days as she recovers. Contributions keep flowing in - I may even have to get her a new book!
When my close friend was diagnosed again after five years, I gathered all of our co-workers and we went to her house to turn her small backyard into a healing garden. We all pulled together and planted flowers, and added a birdbath and wind chimes. We gave her a reason to go out and enjoy looking at the birds and flowers.
When I learn a friend or family member has cancer, I first find out who knows, then send those people a square of white cotton fabric and ask them to sign it in permanent marker. I use the squares to whip together a quilt to surround the patient with love, literally. If others quilt, it is a wonderful group exercise.
Our woman's club wanted to help bring comfort to cancer patients, so we started making Breast Cancer Comfort Pillows. Women can use the colorful, cotton 8"X12" pillows and 9"X13" pillowcases anytime their breast is sore. They can put the pillows between the seatbelt and their breast in the car, or use them for extra support when lying on their side. So far, we've made about 350 pillows, which are free to any breast cancer patient.
When my aunt was diagnosed, family throughout the country wanted to do something special for her. We mailed a sheet to each family member and everyone added their handprints in paint to the sheet, along with a short message and their name. After everyone had added their handprints, one person made the sheet into a quilt. Our hands showed her we cared, were thinking of her, and were pulling for her to get through treatment.
When I went through breast cancer this past year, just a simple card being sent to me would really brighten my day. When I was having a bad day and did not feel great, I could pull my cards out and they would bring a smile to my day.
I am a very practical person and thought I could help my friend going through surgery and chemo by cataloguing all the kind notes and gifts of food and other goodies that she received. I created a whole index card system of names and addresses with gift/thoughtfulness noted on each card and then created all the thank you notes for her to sign and send.
My advice is to be a good listener and resist the urge to solve everything. So many breast cancer questions do not have answers, so just letting my wife talk out her feelings or fears helped her.
I went to visit my college-age son in Los Angeles a week after donning my wig, when I still felt very self-conscious in it. One of his neighbors, who was a top Hollywood stylist for the stars, warmly hugged me when she met me and later quietly offered to thin and style the wig for me while I toured a museum the next day in my scarf. It looked fantastic when she was done - and is the closest I will ever come to looking like a movie star!
My partner and I were lucky to have health insurance when she was diagnosed. I took over managing the bills and insurance papers so she didn't have to see everything and worry. Not having to deal with that stress allowed her more time to relax, catch a nap, talk with the kids, or do something else to help refresh.
Do you have an idea or suggestion to help someone become a more effective co-survivor? Email us your tip*, in 75 words or less; please put "Co-survivor Tip" in the subject line.
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Updated March 18, 2013