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Breast cancer support: How to do the right thing

Fear of doing the wrong thing can get in the way of giving a friend the support they need... so we asked five breast cancer survivors what helped and what didn’t.

What can I do to help? That’s the question many of us would ask if someone close said they had breast cancer. But is that the best question, or could we do better?
Do frozen dinners really make a difference, or is that just something we do because we’ve seen it done before? And how sick does chemo actually make you feel? We asked five Kiwi women to give us an insight into what goes through the mind of someone fighting this all-too-common disease, so we can all be better prepared to help.
While no two women have exactly the same experience of cancer, they did reveal some universal truths when it comes to how other people react. So here is the good, the very good, and the downright unhelpful when it comes to supporting someone through a difficult time.
'I’d feel like I was just being a whinge, or playing on my cancer.'
Anna Southern
Diagnosed in 2007
Anna, 54, is a single mum to her 14-year-old son. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She has metastatic (incurable) breast cancer.
We are focused on today:
If you’re a mother, you’re always trying to be strong for your children. With my son I’ve always spoken the truth about what’s happening at the moment, and I have never talked about the possibilities of what could be. I didn’t want to lie, but didn’t want to get him into all sorts of drama about things that haven’t actually occurred.
Don't ask, just do:
I’ve had radiotherapy twice. The first time I’d say there was a tiredness that lasted two years; the second time I didn’t have the same side effects. During my treatment I had a neighbour who turned up on the doorstep and cleaned my floor. I had no choice; she was going to do it. I was so incredibly thankful. I really struggled to ask people to do things, especially housework. I looked healthy, so I looked like I could do it. And I’d feel like I was just being a whinge, or playing on my cancer or something like that! I also struggled with people asking ‘how can I help you?’ I know they had the best of intentions but my mind would go blank. I needed people to say, “I can make you meals”, or “I can come and do your gardening”.
You just never know…
I once heard someone say ‘never judge another person; you never know what kind of day they are having’. At the time I thought about getting frustrated with the person in the car in front going too slowly through the traffic lights. Then the day I was told I had breast cancer I was rushing to get my son from school, and my driving was really erratic. I realised I don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and here I am, diagnosed with cancer, and no one else on this road knows. It’s given me a lot more empathy and tolerance.
Make the decision:
Another thing I noticed: I really like it when other people make decisions for me. Not ‘which café would you like to go to?’ but ‘we’ll go to THIS café’. There are so many decisions we have to make in our lives. Sometimes I can’t even pick up the telephone to ring someone because it’s another thing I have to do. It’s about keeping the day really simple. I can cope with four things today – what are those four things going to be?
Just listen:
You need people you can talk to without them giving advice and ideas. They should just say, “Yeah, you’re having a really shitty day.”
'I know women who have got pregnant after this... There is hope.'
Jessica Weller
Diagnosed in 2012
Jessica Weller, 30, is a relief teacher. She was 27 and in London on her OE when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Jokes are okay:
There is a certain dark humour with cancer. I remember finding a lump on my head and my friend joking it was a brain tumour. She’d been around me and she knew I liked to have a laugh. You should test the waters first obviously, don’t just jump in there, but when people can let go, it helps. You do try to protect everyone else. People say, “You’re so brave, so strong.” No, I had no bloody choice.
Sometimes we feel great:
I vomited the first and second chemo and then I was sweet. With the steroids you’re as high as a kite, so you’ve got to be careful not to overexert yourself. After my fourth round of chemo I did a half marathon, walking through London. I raised $2900 for Cancer Research UK. I was like ‘Yeah, I feel good!’ I crashed and burned the next day.
New friends are great too:
I wasn’t going to let cancer stop me from having my full two years in London, so I stayed there for my treatment. I think there was an advantage to being on the other side of the world. I had a core group of friends I’d known for four or five months and they stuck to me like glue. They’ll be in my life forever now. As for my family and close friends in New Zealand – I’m almost glad they were at arm’s length, because it would’ve been too hard for them to see me go through that.
Hope is important:
I’ve noticed I now take each day as it comes. That’s why I enjoy being a relief teacher so much. I think, “This is what I enjoy doing today, tomorrow might be different – I’ll deal with that when it happens.” I’m really lucky I don’t have to be on hormones. I’ve recently been to the fertility clinic and I’m about to get blood tests to see if my eggs are at a healthy level – I had some frozen just in case. I know women who have got pregnant after this. It’s important for me to say there is hope. Then I need to find a husband, but that’s a whole other ball game!
Be interested:
The best way to help is: don’t offer, just do. Also: ask questions, be interested. And don’t compare to other women with breast cancer. We have different oncologists, and they all have their own cocktail of drugs, no one is going to be on the same treatment path. Don’t say, “My mum’s cousin’s wife’s sister had breast cancer and she is alright, you will be too.” I had a friend who made my cancer her drama, and I had to cut her off in the end. Energy vampires are the worst. You automatically have that attitude of, ‘I can’t deal with your shit now; you’re over there and I’m going forwards.’
'I appreciated the little things like flowers and cards. They’re not cliché at all; your spirits lift. Those random acts of kindness all help.'
Karen McMillan
Diagnosed in 2011
Karen, 47, is married and works in publishing. She has written a book on cancer called Unbreakable Spirit. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.
I don't need your expert opinion:
People should keep their diet and medical tips completely to themselves. You know they’re just trying to help, but we already have doctors. I remember when I’d just been diagnosed and someone very dear to me said, “You’re going to have a double mastectomy, then you’re going to have chemotherapy.” I wasn’t ready to hear that. I was really, really upset. Sometimes people have just seen a TV show or read an article about cancer and they tell you about this new ‘breakthrough’. I’d think, ‘Well my oncologist doesn’t agree with that, so shut up!’
I'm still me:
I felt fine during my radiotherapy treatment, but I found the chemo really hard. I got quite run down and quite sick. Some people are surprised when you say you’re having a bad day. They’re used to a brave cancer patient on TV, rather than a real cancer patient. Then there are the people who run for the hills. You meet them a few years later and they say, “Oh, I heard you had cancer.” They couldn’t cope with it. People need to remember you’re not having a personality transplant. The difference is suddenly you’ve got a ‘statistic’ in life and you’ve never had that.
Cards are not cliché:
Before you go looking at what others can do for you, as the person with breast cancer you’ve got to allow people to help you. What people do is incredible. I had people drive me to my appointments, which was a godsend, and do my housework. You know how it is, there is nothing worse than a house that looks awful! But I also appreciated the little things like flowers and cards. They’re not cliché at all; your spirits lift. Those random acts of kindness all help.
Colds are not welcome:
If people are a bit stuck, they can talk to the husband or partner to find out what’s appropriate. But one thing people should know; if you’re even slightly ill, don’t go visiting someone having cancer treatment, whether it’s a cold or any kind of illness. We’re under quarantine!
'People need to be ready when they ask, “How are you?” that you might say, “Not good.”'
Sonja Mravicich
Diagnosed in 2011
Sonja, 40, has a partner and three kids aged 15, 12 and seven, and owns a preschool in South Auckland. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.
Think before you speak:
The day I was diagnosed, I invited my friends over to tell them. One of my closest friends said, “I don’t know what I’d do if they cut mine off.” My other two friends replied, “Are you serious?” and she said, “They’re my identity, how are you going to feel when they cut yours off?” I ended up comforting her. We found a brochure that had a page on ‘things to say and not to say’ and we gave it to her and said ‘Read the brochure!’ I feel good about encouraging women to get their boobs checked. I don’t want their children to go through what my children went through. I don’t want their mothers to have to take their daughters to oncology for breast cancer, because that’s not right.
Be prepared for the bad days:
You can’t predict how you’re going to be feeling. There was one drug that blew me out of the water. I couldn’t walk. I crawled and ached. I spent every day in the bath; I would have four baths a day, it felt like I would imagine arthritis to feel. People need to be ready when they ask, “How are you?” that you might say, “Not good”. I was told by my nurse if anyone asks and you don’t feel good, you tell them – because you might not look sick. My wig looked exactly like my hair, so a lot of people didn’t even know I’d had chemo – they just thought, ‘God, Sonja’s got puffy!’ My chemo was always on a Friday, and on the Sunday I would drive a dirt track car. I’d have a little nap and they’d wake me up for the ladies’ race. I don’t think anyone at the track, apart from the course marshals, knew I had cancer. I got third that year!
It's not about vitamins:
If one more person had said to me, “Have you tried vitamin C?” or “Are you juicing?”... No, I eat pineapple Frujus and salted potato chips because that’s all I want to eat. I got really good at being polite. You say, “Really? Thank you for that!” then get in the car and say “Stupid lady...” But it comes from a good place. They want to help, and because they feel so useless, when they have heard of something they want to tell us just in case. They don’t mean to be nosy or pushy.
Everyone needs an 'organiser':
My mum went through my cancer journey with me. She was there for all the appointments, asked all the questions. I also had a friend who was the ‘organiser’. Everyone needs one of those. She kept a roster of who was making me dinners, and picking up the kids, so if anyone asked to help out she could tell them exactly what was needed. My children to this day will not eat cottage pie, but as a quick meal it was great. I loved having someone take me for a coffee so I wasn’t looking at the same wall and listening to the same noise.
‘Some people think I’m being trendy. They ask, “Did you shave your head?” “Aah... not on purpose”’
Michelle Perry
Diagnosed in 2011
Michelle Perry, 41, is married and has two girls aged 12 and 10. She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and then again in 2014. This year she was diagnosed with multiple brain tumours.
Being open works both ways:
My friends said to me it was great I was open about everything that was going on. They weren’t afraid to ask me stuff because I was giving out information left, right and centre. My friends are always very polite when they bring up treatments they’ve read about. They say, “I don’t mean to butt in but have you heard about…”
Life doesn't stop:
My journey hasn’t been all bad. If nothing else, just finding out how well-surrounded I am by such incredible human beings has been a big plus. I am still on the Board of Trustees, still manage our kids’ sports teams, and still try to make every event I can. I’ve never been encouraged to do anything less than before. And with two daughters to help plan weddings for, the long-term goals keep me motivated to stay as healthy as possible. It makes drinking my jungle [vege] juice worth every mouthful. It’s amazing what being surrounded by positivity will do for you. Though I’m that way inclined already, it doesn’t hurt to have a little help. You feel those good vibes, I tell you.
Be prepared for anything:
No two people have gone on the exact same cancer journey. I can’t drive because of the risk of seizures, but I’m not ever really sick. Some people react badly to their treatment but me and drugs go together so well, it’s ridiculous. I would even stop off after chemo to go shopping at the mall. I don’t look sick: my hairstyle now, some people just think I’m being trendy. They ask, “Did you shave your head?” “Aah... not on purpose…” Sometimes when you’re honest with people they don’t know what to say. I’ll tell them, “It’s okay.”
It's the little things:
I’ve had a whole community behind me, making home-cooked frozen dinners, or baking for the kids for their school lunches. It’s those things you don’t feel like doing yourself that you’re so grateful for. I’ve had rides to appointments, gardening help, transport for the kids, people organising auctions to help financially – you name it, someone has been there – without even asking! Every day it totally astounds me how much people genuinely care.
Words by:
Photos: Angie Humphries/ Bauer Media Studios
Hair and makeup by: Sharon Laurence-Anderson using M.A.C and Luisa Petch
With thanks to Odettes Eatery

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