When my younger sister was 37 years old, she began planning an extensive tour of South East Asia. In preparation for her departure, she went for her annual doctor's appointment, thinking it would merely be a routine check-up. To her surprise, the visit revealed a lump in her breast. Having come from a family history of benign breast tumors, she put it out of her mind and took off on her travels. It was probably nothing, she told herself, keeping in mind that myself, our mother and our aunt had all had an experience with a benign breast tumor. We told her not to worry, and she gave the matter no further thought.
When she returned from her trip a few months later, it was back to the doctor for more extensive tests. I accompanied her on that day and I vividly remember our light-hearted conversation as we waited impatiently in the waiting room. "Oh, it's nothing," I told her. "You're too young. And besides, benign tumors are a family affair." In the end, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. A frightening diagnosis for even the most adequately prepared patient, we faced the diagnosis as a family full of love and support.
And so her journey began as she embarked on a slew of surgical procedures, chemotherapy treatment and extensive radiation. Thankfully, we come from a family of serial entrepreneurs. My sister was able to step away from her business to focus 100 per cent on her healing. Our extensive family was beyond supportive, offering up their time and care since the flexibility of their schedules allowed it. Her partner was also incredibly supportive every step of the way. They say "it takes a village" and particularly when facing an abyss of all the unknowns surrounding the big "C," it really did take a village of family, friends, and loved ones to carry my sister through to the other side.
I can only imagine how overwhelming it is for breast cancer patients to face this journey alone or with limited means and resources. While there are so many organizations out there supporting cancer research, Willow is unique in that it provides intimate support to those who have already been diagnosed and are being treated for cancer. Willow provides answers to questions, supportive online forums, and a wealth of knowledge and inspiration. Willow has built a community of breast cancer survivors who offer hope and help patients and families face this journey with awareness and understanding.
By and large, I still believe my sister's optimism and the support of family and friends were integral to her survival. Through this necessary support, my sister was able to gain a foothold on a positive attitude, which was paramount to her healing. Fifteen years down the road, she and I still discuss how important organizations like Willow are to helping women who are winning the battle against cancer.
This year in Canada, an estimated 23,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. This number is staggering. I wanted to give back to an organization that helps those struggling with the same diagnoses my family has faced, particularly those women facing this future alone. Please join me and 60 of Toronto's most renowned female Chefs at this year's Eat to the Beat for an evening of delicious food, delightful music and a fantastic celebration.
And be ready to talk. This might not be the easiest conversation you've ever had, but young women in treatment often feel quite isolated and have a lot of information they have to understand -- not to mention a lot of fear. Allow her to be sad and acknowledge that it's hard. Supportive emails or notes in her mailbox can also go a long way.
Food -- meals, muffins, fresh fruit, or restaurant gift cards -- it's all helpful. Groceries are often difficult while in treatment when you don't have the energy and smells in the store make you feel nauseous. This can be as simple as knocking on the door with some strawberries or a schedule of families that are interested in making meals.
Women in treatment don't expect gifts -- time and friendship are more important -- but if you are looking for something as a thoughtful token, waiting room gifts (ex. books, magazines and games) are always helpful. <a href="http://www.rethinkbreastcancer.com" target="_hplink">Rethink Breast Cancer</a> is a Canadian charity that works with younger women affected by breast cancer and they have an excellent list of helpful products for women in treatment called <a href="http://www.rethinkbreastcancer.com/support-programs/chemo-care/" target="_hplink">Chemo Care</a>. The suggested products could be purchased as a care package for a friend about to start treatment.
If your friend has children, this can be one of the biggest sources of worry and stress. Dropping off a new video or small toy for the kids is often helpful. Volunteering to pick up the kids or have them for play-dates is also helpful -- and sometimes even essential. I also appreciated when friends asked what they should tell their own children about my illness to make sure they were 'in-line' with what we were saying at our house.
Even though my life felt far from normal, I loved being invited out in the evenings or chatting about what everyone was doing on the weekend. What a relief to have a break from cancer!
As part of my treatment, I needed 17 rounds of Herceptin, which is a drug that is given intravenously in the chemo room. Going in that room was always tough so I often asked a friend to come with me. To my amazement, I ended up looking forward to these appointments! Afterwards, we would try to go out for lunch together which made it a "fun" outing rather than just a cancer treatment.
Looking online about part of your diagnosis seems like an easy solution, but it can quickly become a minefield of scary answers. If I had a burning question, I loved being able to pass it to a friend to look up and give me the shortened -- and safely edited -- version of the answers she found. Any helpful books, articles or resources friends found along the way were also greatly appreciated.
For good friends, it can be thoughtful to send a supportive email or card after appointments when test results are discovered. It's also really helpful for friends to understand that while the physical treatment is hard in so many ways, the emotional fears <em>after</em> treatment can be almost debilitating.
Most people have their own personal baggage around breast cancer and not everyone is able to have a deep conversation about it. Don't feel that you need to force it if you're not comfortable. However, if at all possible, try to be cautious about mentioning all of the people in your family who have died from breast cancer. It's not that your friend doesn't feel for your situation or that she might not be able to talk about it with you in the future, but when she is first diagnosed, she is clinging on to the thread of hope that she will be able to be one of the ones to beat this disease.