Hearing the words, "You have breast cancer" can make you feel like time is standing still. Maybe your heart skips a beat or your mouth goes dry. When you're able to think again, one of the first things to pop into your mind may be, "What do I do now?"
In 2023, almost 298,000 women and 2,800 men in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
If your loved one has been diagnosed, is going through treatment, or is in remission, it can be challenging to know what to do. We've compiled an extensive list of resources to help explain how to support someone with breast cancer, as well as words of advice from people who've lived through it themselves. You may want to bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it as you and your loved ones go through this journey together.
How to Support Someone With Breast Cancer: Advice From Survivors
If you've never been diagnosed with breast cancer or never had to live through treatments before, it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of your loved ones. That can make it hard to know what they really need from you.
If this is something that you're struggling with, it's okay. Many people deal with those same emotions. The fact that you care enough to want to help in whatever way you may be needed is the best first step.
We are not mind readers, which means that you can't know exactly what kind of support your loved one needs. And, asking them how you can help may feel like you're putting yet another thing on their plate. That's why we've talked to breast cancer survivors and those currently undergoing treatment, to help provide guidance on how to best support your loved one.
Give Them Space to Vent
Robin Burrill, an eight-year breast cancer survivor, says that the best help she received while battling breast cancer was from a friend that simply let her talk about her frustrations. "She wouldn't tell me it was going to be ok, she would say it sucks, she would tell me it was scary," says Burrill. People need space to be able to cry, talk, and be heard.
Burrill also points out that it can be difficult for people diagnosed with breast cancer to turn to their family members or partners for support because it can elevate feelings of guilt or pain. "You need that ONE or two people that will just let you let it out," says Burrill, "That person that you can tell that you're scared to death."
If you aren't in a person's "inner circle" of friends and family members and don't have the kind of relationship that would allow you to be their confidant, that's okay. There are plenty of other ways that you can still show support.
For example, you can send cards, letters, and small gifts that let the person know that you are thinking about them. "They were so precious to me at the time," says Burrill, "I cried over each one." You can also offer the gift of your presence. Simply stop by to sit and visit with the person that has been diagnosed. "And talk about anything BUT cancer," notes Burrill.
"Cancer is worse on those that don't have it than it is on those that have it," says Burrill. "Partners and kids and family need loving, as well." She notes that it was helpful when people would get her partner out of the house to golf or do a fun activity to provide some stress relief.
If the person undergoing breast cancer treatments has children, you might offer to help with school drop offs and pick ups. This is an easy way to take something off of their plate. If they will allow it, you can also offer to take the kids to the park or to grab a snack. This can help to take their minds off their mom or dad for just a moment.
Offer Ways That You Can Help
According to Stephanie Hastings, an 11-year Stage 3, grade 3, BRCA1+ breast cancer survivor, one way that you can support someone that has been diagnosed is to let them know how you can help, instead of saying "Let me know what you need." "That puts the labor of delegation onto a patient who's just trying to make it day by day," says Hastings.
She also recommends that people refer to a person's designated liaison if they have one, such as a partner or close family member, that may have more free mental space to evaluate what might be helpful to the person diagnosed. "Be the initiator," says Hastings, "and come up with an idea of how you can be helpful."
This can be as simple as saying, "I can do x, y, and z." If you offer to make re-heatable meals, text the person to let them know when you can drop them off. If you offer to pick up a prescription, send them a message and let them know that you just left the pharmacy. Whatever you agreed to do, follow through.
Don't Take It Personally if They Don't Reach Out
Being diagnosed with breast cancer or undergoing treatment is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. Your loved one might not have the energy to accept the help that you have offered, to answer your phone calls, or respond to your text messages, and that's okay.
"Let someone know you are there for them but don't feel bad if you aren't asked for anything," says Maria Boustead, who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer. Boustead says that the kind words, actions, and offers never go unnoticed, even if the person doesn't respond. "It made me feel good to know that I was in their thoughts," she says.
Treat Them Like a Normal Person
Laura Lummer, a twice-diagnosed breast cancer survivor who is currently going through treatment, says that one of the best things you can do for someone that has been diagnosed is to simply be there for them the way you would be there for any other friend.
"Approach your survivor with love and healing energy, rather than fear," says Lummer. They already have enough to worry about. "Laugh with them, be vulnerable with them, and just be there without any expectations," she says.
People that have been diagnosed with breast cancer still want to be hugged by loved ones, binge-watch shows, and lay on the couch. When you participate in these activities with a loved one that has been diagnosed, you might feel like you aren't doing much. However, you're creating a sense of normalcy and comfort that they might be hoping for.
Avoid Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is when someone tries to be overly optimistic about the seriousness of a challenge to the point that it belittles the difficulties that a person is experiencing. And, according to Suzanne Garner, a Stage 2 breast cancer survivor, it should be avoided at all costs.
You don't need to tell your loved one that it's all going to be okay. Instead, Garner recommends that loved ones "try to be 'OK' with the fear a breast cancer patient is experiencing."
Breast cancer can be scary, intimidating, and overwhelming, and it's okay for someone who is diagnosed to feel that way. Allow them to express, feel, and share whatever their thoughts or feelings may be. Then, do your best to listen, and try to avoid overcompensating with positives.
How to Help a Friend Diagnosed with Breast Cancer in Little Ways
When it comes to offering help, it can be hard to figure out what your friend or family member may really need. Here are some possible ideas for making this difficult process easier:
- Put together a chemo care package. Chemo can take anywhere from minutes to hours to complete. These treatments can also happen quite regularly, depending on the specific diagnosis. If you don't have time to go sit with your friend, a care package that has Sudoku and crossword puzzles, magazines, ginger drinks to help with nausea, warm socks, a blanket, a neck pillow, and easy to digest snacks can all be a great choice.
- Sign them up for a streaming service. If they love to watch movies or television shows, another great gift is distraction! Ask what streaming services they have and sign them up for something new. This is a great option if they have a tablet or iPad that they can easily bring along.
- Offer to walk their pets. If you have the time, offering to take on a few of their daily or weekly tasks can take a big weight off of their shoulders.
- Prepare a meal or drop off groceries. The last thing anyone wants after coming home from the hospital is figuring out what they will have for dinner and then having to make it. Buying and making pre-made meals that they just have to throw in the microwave or oven can be a big relief. Remember though, their appetite may be off, so inquire about what foods are giving them trouble and if there is anything they find appealing.
- Help with yard work and other regular chores. Cancer treatments come with extreme fatigue. This makes daily tasks difficult. A fantastic way to support someone with cancer is to give your time. Make sure that they don't have to stress over these chores.
For those extra stubborn friends who claim they can do it all, offer to come by once a week. Let them know a window of time that you will always be available. Then, inform them that during this hour, you can talk or you can be put to work with no expectation of interaction. This gives them the convenience of being able to cave and ask for assistance on difficult days.
Emotional Support for Someone With Breast Cancer
When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be isolating. For example, they may feel like they are a burden to the loved ones around them. Or that their close friends and family members have started to treat them differently because of their illness, which can complicate the bonds they had before.
For all of these reasons and many more, someone that has been diagnosed with breast cancer may benefit from some additional emotional support. There are several phenomenal organizations dedicated to helping men and women diagnosed with breast cancer find the support they need.
In addition, some of the organizations also offer resources to family members, loved ones, and caregivers. It's important to remember that they may also need some extra emotional support during this challenging time.
Support groups are a great resource to utilize for people that have been diagnosed, as well as for their loved ones. They bring together people that have had similar life experiences to create a sense of community.
During support groups, participants are invited to share only what they feel comfortable with. It can create a sense of emotional release where people can really take the deep breath that they need and speak their truth. There are a variety of in-person and virtual support group opportunities available, and almost all of them are free of charge.
Browse the following organizations and programs to find a support group that might be a good fit for you or your loved one.
- After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD) - Get matched with a mentor with an organization started in 1999 that offers specialized one-to-one support to help people through diagnosis, treatment, and beyond.
- BreastCancer.org-Connect with people with similar diagnoses and that have gone through similar life experiences.
- Cancer Support Community- Find online community support where you can share your experiences and find insights and coping strategies.
- Cancer Survivor Network- hey offer peer-to-peer support for cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and their families.
- City of Hope - City of Hope connects people that have been diagnosed with major illnesses with virtual and community-based support groups. You can use their website to find a support group that fits your needs, or that is based in your location.
- His Breast Cancer Awareness- This foundation was created in 2009 by a brother and sister duo who were both diagnosed with breast cancer to increase awareness and break the stigma surrounding men being diagnosed with breast cancer. Their site offers blogs, treatment information, and a discussion forum that allows men diagnosed with breast cancer to connect.
- Hoag.org - Hoag offers a variety of online cancer classes and support groups for those that have been diagnosed with any type of cancer, as well as their loved ones. Licensed clinical social workers facilitate the groups alongside oncology nurses.
- Imerman Angels - Get matched with a mentor who can provide one-on-one support. This is open to those currently fighting cancer, survivors, and caregivers.
- Sharsheret - This Jewish organization offers support to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, those that are in treatment, and those that are breast cancer survivors.
- Sutter Health - They offer free online breast cancer support groups
- UCSF Health - This hospital offers free online support groups for anyone that has been diagnosed with breast cancer, regardless of where they receive treatment for their illness. And, they also have free support groups for family and friends of loved ones that have been diagnosed.
- Young Survival Coalition - This organization provides resources and information about breast cancer and is specifically meant to help young adults that have been diagnosed. Current patients that have been diagnosed or are going through treatment can be paired with a young survivor for support.
In addition to support groups, those living through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment may also find comfort, a safe space to vent, and guidance through some of the hotlines listed below.
- CancerCare.org - 800‑813‑HOPE (4673)
- CancerCare and Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation - 877-880-8622
- Cancer Support Helpline - 888-793-9355
- Cancer.org Helpline - 1-800-227-2345. This is a 24/7 helpline that also offers the opportunity to schedule a video chat.
Financial Support for Someone With Breast Cancer
It probably doesn't come as a surprise, but cancer treatment is expensive. There are a seemingly endless amount of doctor visits, hospital stays, treatment sessions, and a variety of other medical obligations.
This is on top of the social and personal financial tolls that cancer treatment and diagnosis can cause, such as potential layoffs at work or a reduction of hours. Some people also experience increased use of childcare to be able to attend appointments or spend more to accommodate recommended changes in diet. All of this can add up.
Having to worry about all of these elements on top of a cancer diagnosis can seem nearly impossible and can add to the amount of stress that a person experiences. The resources below offer financial assistance to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Explore the organizations and find which compensation you or your loved one might qualify for.
- Accessia Health - Accessia Health, formerly known as Patient Services Incorporated (PSI), is a nonprofit organization that was started in 1989. For decades, they have been helping people diagnosed with chronic illnesses find health insurance coverage, as well as providing financial assistance for treatment options.
- CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance Fund - This financial assistance program was created in 2007. It aims to break down the monetary barriers that prevent those with a cancer diagnosis from getting the treatment that they need by assisting with the costs of co-pays for numerous treatments and cancer diagnoses.
- Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition - This organization is made up of several different foundations that have come together to create a website that helps people with a cancer diagnosis receive financial assistance. You can visit the website, input information about your diagnosis and why type of financial assistance you're looking for, and the database will help you find a match.
- Genevieve's Helping Hands - This organization aims to support women under the age of 40 that have been diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly those that have families. This nonprofit offers financial support through recovery and respite grants aimed to help women recover and rest.
- The Gift of Hope - This breast cancer foundation provides financial support for low-income women that have been diagnosed with breast cancer. As the organization is based in Florida, they prefer applicants to be from the same state.
- Good Days - Good Days is a nonprofit organization that aims to help support and spread awareness about the burden of chronic illnesses. They also offer financial assistance for patients that cannot afford medication prescribed to them as part of their treatment plan and help connect patients to insurance plans that work best for them.
- HealthWell Foundation - This nonprofit provides financial support for individuals with life-altering diseases and diagnoses. They help people afford treatments and access to medical care that might not be covered by their insurance.
- Patient Access Network Foundation (PAN) - PAN is dedicated to helping people diagnosed with chronic diseases cover the out-of-pocket costs of treatment.
- The Pink Fund - This organization provides financial assistance to patients that are actively receiving treatment, as well as partners or caregivers that have been financially impacted due to a loved one's cancer diagnosis.
- The Sisters Network Inc.- This network is a national African American breast cancer survivorship organization. Ever since 2006, the organization has offered an assistance program for people facing financial hardships due to their diagnosis and medical expenses. People can apply to receive funding from the program and applications are reviewed through various cycles throughout the year.
Many of these organizations have funds that fluctuate throughout the year based on donations. What this means is that financial assistance may not always be available, but the fund status can change at any time, so check back regularly for updates.
Educational Support for Someone With Breast Cancer (and Loved Ones)
There are a lot of resources out there to educate yourself about breast cancer and what all of the medical terminology means. If your loved one has been recently diagnosed and you (or they) are eager to learn more, here are some of the best online resources you'll find.
- American Cancer Society - The American Cancer Society provides information about the causes, risk factors, and prevention of breast cancer for women, as well as for men.
- BreastCancer.org - This site offers information surrounding the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, screening and testing procedures, statistics, and risk factors for both women and men who have been diagnosed with the disease.
- CancerCare.org - CancerCare hosts online educational workshops, connects people that have been diagnosed with breast cancer to specific resources, as well as offers the potential to speak with an oncology social worker to explore counseling options.
- Living Beyond Breast Cancer - This organization provides medical information, tips from people that have been diagnosed or are going through treatment, as well as further resources.
- National Breast Cancer Foundation - This organization provides educational resources surrounding breast cancer, helps people find cost-free mammogram services, and connects people to professionals that can help them navigate through the ins and outs of treatment and the healthcare system.
- National Cancer Institute - This site provides general information about breast cancer, including male breast cancer, as well as stages and treatment.
- Susan G. Komen - This cancer charity offers a variety of information about breast cancer risk factors, treatment options, signs and symptoms, and information about current clinical trials.
Support Your Loved One However You Can
You might want to provide your loved one with everything you've got to give, but it's important to remember that those efforts can cause you to feel burnt out, and in turn, neglect your own health and/or responsibilities. Or, maybe you don't have the time to give as much as you want. It often takes a group effort to provide a loved one with what they need to cope with their breast cancer diagnosis.
Answering the question 'how to support someone with breast cancer' will be highly dependent on the person, their diagnosis, how they handle their treatments, and their family situation. Ask questions, love them, and be there for them however you can. Finally, don't be afraid to reach out to loved ones to coordinate support. This makes it easier to provide continuous support.