You have breast cancer.
Imagine hearing those words about your wife, mother, sister, or daughter.
You. Have. Breast. Cancer.
Shock, disbelief, fear, anger, confusion. All simultaneous, legitimate intense emotions elicited by a diagnosis of breast cancer. And they hit like a bolt of lightning.
It is estimated that almost 400,000 women in the United States will hear those words this year. 1 in 8 women are statistically likely to develop breast cancer, many with no obvious risk factors like:
- Genetic predisposition e.g. BRCA 1, BRCA 2
- Hormone use
- Family History
- History of radiation therapy
Regardless of the cause, once the diagnosis is made, the road to recovery and normalcy is challenging and stressful for both the woman and her loved ones, particularly the spouse.
For over 30 years as a Reconstructive surgeon, I have spent more time with my breast cancer patients than most of the other doctors on the cancer team, including the medical oncologist, breast surgeon, radiation oncologist, patient navigators, genetic counselors, and psychologists. Breast reconstruction is a staged procedure that can take as long as 6 to 12 months depending on the other treatment modalities.
As a result, I have seen the effects that family support can have on the mental and physical health of the breast cancer patient.
Here are 6 important tips for spouses and other family members on how to deal with the diagnosis and the journey to come.
Absorb The Shock Of The Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Even though you’re not the patient, it’s still your cancer. It’s okay to be disoriented, confused, and even frightened by the news. Feel the emotions. That allows empathy to manifest rather than just sympathy. Take the hit with your loved one.
Getting a diagnosis of breast cancer in a loved one is surreal. The world changes. One woman described it as suddenly being on an off ramp of life while the rest of the world moves on. Life has now changed and there are new priorities, the biggest one being survival.
So, just like a rapid response team, each person should have a role in charting and following this new and unexpected journey. But the focus, the energy, and the purpose is the patient. Don’t make this about you.
Give Her Lots Of Space, But Be There
One of the most common complaints that my breast cancer patients have conveyed privately to me early on after their diagnosis is feeling “smothered.” Too much doting, too much helping, and even too much pep talking drives many of them crazy.
While it may seem selfish or insensitive, patients want help or advice when they want it! Give them space to breathe. Don’t be offended if your efforts are rebuffed or if they react abruptly. Be ready to help and be strong for them when they need it.
Believe In The Process And Educate Yourself
While breast cancer treatment is constantly improving, the scientific community is bound by evidence. Any new treatments must be proven to be effective through sound and rigorous processes that hold up under scrutiny.
Sadly, there are many out there that peddle unproven and potentially dangerous “alternative” treatments that promise better results with fewer side effects without any decent studies to support the claims. One example still touted is “shark cartilage” treatment, with only anecdotal or personal stories of success and based on the false premise that sharks never get cancer.
The best way to help your loved one with breast cancer is to know the facts, be part of their patient advocacy, and hold those involved with her treatment to the highest possible standards.
There are many reasons to be positive. The death rate from breast cancer has decreased steadily over the last decade for women over 50. The typical measure for survival is in 5-year increments. The average 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is around 90%, obviously less for more aggressive tumors or those diagnosed late.
After 5 years, the risk of breast cancer recurrence, meaning whether the breast cancer comes back, drops significantly. Breast cancer can come back in the area near the original cancer (“local recurrence”) or in another area like the liver, lungs, bones, or brain (“distant recurrence”).
And so that means…
Stay Vigilant And Be Proactive
Patients are encouraged to continue doing breast self-exam and regular followups with the medical oncologist for radiological and blood testing, including tumor markers, which can be an early sign of recurrence.
Be proactive. Help your loved one change to or build on a healthy lifestyle:
- Maintain a healthy weight/reduce body fat
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy diet of vegetables, fish, organic meats and chicken
- Reduce stress
And as we know, living a healthy lifestyle is easier if your partner does too, so walk the walk!
Breast cancer awareness can help reduce the risk of delayed diagnosis and poor prognosis. And men are at risk as well, though much less so.
But once diagnosed, breast cancer patients can survive and thrive, and you can play a major role in their recovery and well-being.