It takes a village: supporting those caring for people with breast cancer

The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis is felt far beyond the person with the disease – and the shock and fear experienced by someone who has breast cancer is also felt by loved ones supporting and caring for them during treatment.

The extra effort of running a household and caring for children is often recognised but the emotional load of a cancer diagnosis can easily be overlooked.

So how do you offer support to someone who is caring for a loved one with breast cancer? Here are some thoughts and tips from carers who have been there themselves.

Make your friendship a priority
 JoelCurrently caring for his wife who is undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer  

‘Cancer puts your life into perspective. We as a couple and a family have been able to prioritise and focus clearly on what matters to us: family, friendship, experiences and making enduring memories. I believe staying mentally healthy is as important as staying physically healthy in the times to come. Preventative mental health and establishment of a support network is more easily done when you have the capacity to think rationally and clearly rather than looking for help once things have already overwhelmed you. ‘

Be proactive – don’t wait to be asked to help
Jim, former carer for his partner who had metastatic breast cancer

‘Don’t say: “If you need help call me”, or “call me if you need me”! It puts the burden back on the carer to follow up when they might already be uncomfortable asking for help on top of trying to cope with their situation.’

Jim did, however, find good support through other avenues. ‘The Otis Foundation gave us a week-long retreat to the Murray Valley; it was the best time we had together in her final three years. Palliative Care and District Nursing visits to our home in the latter stages of her life were absolutely wonderful as they were so caring and willing to chat and give us information on services and anything they could think of to help.’

Support is a team effort
Doug, carer for his wife Jo who had early breast cancer

Doug focused on trying to stay positive when his wife was diagnosed with early breast cancer, but admits to still feeling the weight of a fear that he could be left alone to raise two young daughters. A small gesture from a friend is something he remembers.

‘A good mate of mine took me out for a round of golf the day my wife was having her breast reconstruction surgery. It was a great distraction for part of a long day.’

Doug was able to take time off work to look after his family while his wife was recovering from surgery, but says the help from other people was just as important.

‘My wife has a very close and amazing friendship group who were supportive from the very beginning. They raised some money for us and organised frozen ready meals so I didn’t have to worry about cooking for our family.’

Create a diversion  help them take time out
Kate, breast cancer survivor and former carer for her sister 

Kate was a carer for her sister, who had small children while also managing her own young family. Kate’s sister spent her last months at their parent’s house and in hospital, a 45-minute drive from Kate’s home.

‘Splitting my time between the two places was intensely hard. I have never experienced stress like it,’ she says. She recalls having panic attacks while travelling between the two places and having to pull over.

‘Everyone I knew was sympathetic, but people lead busy lives and death is scary. I would love to have had more support but when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to know what to ask for and where to turn. It was a very lonely, desperate time. My friends were terrific, always lending a sympathetic ear, available for a coffee or a phone call. I turned 50 two and a half weeks before my sister died. The following year my mates took me away for a long weekend for a belated celebration and they spoilt me rotten! I’ll never forget their kindness and generosity.’

BCNA has a number of resources for people caring for someone with breast cancer, including Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancerI wish I could fix it: helping a partner through breast cancer and You’re important too: looking after yourself as a carer.  

Issue 84
Autumn 2019