I grew up in small-town Ontario where we truly believed that people living in Toronto didn't even know their next-door neighbour. When I eventually moved to Toronto, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a friendly, even close-knit, community. I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing life experiences with my friends and neighbours over the past 15 years that I've lived here. Together, we have switched careers, had babies (and then more babies), met for drinks, and supported each other through a host of life's ups and downs.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37 when my children were two, three and six. Some of us knew how to support a mother or grandmother through this disease -- but a friend?
In the end, the community wrapped its arms around our little family and carried us through one of the hardest years of my life. The offers of help and assistance continually amazed us, and I genuinely don't know if we would have managed as well without the support.
Now, I often get calls and emails from friends who are at a loss when another friend has been diagnosed. What can they do to help?
Below is a list of things that friends did for me -- or things that I heard of people doing for friends with breast cancer. You certainly don't need to try to do all of the things on this list, but if you're looking for an idea, pick one and go with it. Some have a cost associated, though most are completely free.
Story continues after the slideshow...
Stop by or call to chat
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.
Make a meal
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. Rethink Breast Cancer 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 Chemo Care. The suggested products could be purchased as a care package for a friend about to start treatment.
Help with kids
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.
Strive for normalcy -- and even fun!
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!
Go with her to an appointment
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.
Offer to help her research
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.
Go with something
I can almost guarantee that if you tell your friend "If there's anything I can do, just call"... she won't call. We are still programmed not to ask for help! But, if you arrive at her door and say "I'm here to fold your laundry," or "I'm here to help you wrap Christmas gifts," she may try to say no, but will eventually smile and be thankful as she lets you in her house.
Know when it might be tough
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 after treatment can be almost debilitating.
A few words of caution
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.
Unfortunately, not many of us will escape having to support a friend or loved one through a cancer diagnosis. Together, we work our way through the ups and the downs as best we can. No one expects you to be perfect -- just a friend.