People are often at a loss about what to say and do when a friend or family member is diagnosed with a serious illness. Learn how you can support someone with breast cancer, including practical things you can do to help. Suggestions are provided on what you can say to someone with breast cancer as well what you might want to avoid saying.

How can I support someone with breast cancer?

It is normal to feel unsure about what to say or do when someone you care about is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Here are some tips that you may find helpful:

  • Be a good listener and let her direct the conversation – let her decide if she wants to talk about her cancer
  • Respect her privacy. Don’t pry for details – let her share as much about her situation as she would like to
  • Be honest and open in admitting your own feeling and concerns. It’s OK to tell her that you are not sure what to say or do
  • Assure her that you are there for her and would like to help however you can
  • Be specific about ways you can help and then follow through with your offer
  • Keep in touch with her – even if it’s just to let her know that she is in your thoughts. This could be an email. Better yet, send her a card in the mail
  • If she is finished treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she no longer needs your support. Continue to reach out and offer your support

What are some practical things I can do to help?

Take on some tasks to ease her burden but also try to allow her to feel some sense of independence. She may be reluctant to ask for help so you may want to offer to do some specific tasks for her, such as:

  • Take her to medical appointments and offer to take notes of what the doctor has to say
  • If she is having chemotherapy or radiation, drive and accompany her to a treatment session
  • Pick up her kids from school
  • Look after the kids for an evening or weekend
  • Walk the dog
  • Do laundry
  • Clean the house
  • Get groceries
  • Go wig shopping together if she is going to lose her hair
  • Organize a group of friends to take turns cooking or performing other tasks
  • Bring meals in disposable dishes that do not need to be returned and can be frozen if needed. Ask her what her favorite meals are and if there are any foods that she may not be able to tolerate during her treatments
  • Bring some feel-good DVDs to watch or books to read

What can I say that would be most supportive?

It’s better to say something then nothing at all. People may not necessarily remember the words you say, but they will remember that you did reach out to them in a difficult time.

Here are some words that you might want to use:

  • I’m so sorry
  • How are you coping with this?
  • I will be there for you
  • I’m here to support you in whatever you need
  • Whatever you’re feeling is okay
  • Do you feel like talking about it?

What should I avoid saying or doing?

  • Don’t say that everything is going to be fine and not to worry. Cancer is a serious disease and nobody can guarantee that everything will indeed be fine
  • Don’t tell her to keep a positive attitude. Allow her to express whatever she is feeling. There is no scientific evidence that having a positive attitude will have a positive influence on cancer
  • Don’t tell her that you know how she feels, even if you have been diagnosed with cancer
  • Don’t offer advice, unless you are asked for it
  • Don’t ask: “How can I help?”. This puts a burden on the person to think of tasks. Try to be specific in naming something you will do for her
  • Avoid taking over and trying to do too much for her. Allow her to keep a sense of independence and control of her life
  • Don’t drop in without calling first – she may need her rest and may not appreciate an unexpected guest

Links to more information

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Helping Someone with Cancer
Canadian Cancer Society

Helping a Friend or Colleague with Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer Network Australia

If Someone Has Cancer
Macmillan Cancer Support

Listen with Your Heart
American Cancer Society

When Someone You Know Has Cancer
American Cancer Society

Talking With Someone Who Has Cancer 
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Coworkers
Cancer and Careers (Cosmetic Executive Women Foundation)