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How to support someone with breast cancer

If a friend or family member has been diagnosed with breast cancer, there are a number of things you can do to help or support them.

1. Practical support

Many people with breast cancer want to carry on doing as much as possible during their treatment. However, side effects can make it more difficult to continue with everyday tasks, and asking for help is not always easy.

It can be hard to know how to help, but there are lots of ways you can provide practical support.

As well as thinking about what your friend or family member might need help with, it’s important to think about how long they may need support, what you’re able to do and how much time you can commit. 

Depending on what you feel able to do, you might offer to help with things like:

  • Doing a food shop
  • Cleaning and vacuuming
  • Clothes washing and ironing
  • Gardening
  • Dog walking
  • Cooking meals for freezing
  • Providing transport to and from hospital appointments
  • Coming into hospital appointments to take notes or ask questions
  • Taking children to or from school
  • Babysitting
  • Helping with personal or domestic admin, for example benefits applications or insurance renewals

Being clear about the practical support you can provide may make it easier for your friend of family member to accept. For example, rather than saying “What can I do for you?” it might be better to say “Would you like me to pick the children up from school tomorrow?”.

Some people may be reluctant to accept help or even feel embarrassed about the help that’s being offered. This can sometimes feel hurtful, but it’s important to some people to maintain a sense of normality after a breast cancer diagnosis. Many people want to continue to do things themselves even when the activities become very difficult. 

2. Emotional support

Most people are shocked to hear they have breast cancer. They can experience many different emotions including anger, fear, disbelief, sadness and depression. 

Feelings can change from day to day and even hour to hour, so it’s often difficult to know what to say and how best to support someone emotionally.

How you can provide emotional support

Just being with your friend or family member and allowing them to tell you how they feel is one of the most important ways you can support them emotionally. 

Simply listening patiently is often all that is needed. However, if it’s appropriate, holding hands or giving the person a hug are also good ways of showing your support.

Remember that everyone has their own way of dealing with breast cancer. Not everybody wants to talk about their diagnosis and some people may prefer you to provide a distraction by talking about “normal” things. You should be guided by your friend or relative.

If your friend or family member is happy to talk to you but does not want to discuss their diagnosis with others, offering to update people can be a big help. This can manage other people’s worry and may stop your friend or family member from feeling overwhelmed.  

Coping with your friend or family member’s emotions

Listening to your friend or family member talk about how they’re feeling can be difficult or distressing.

It’s natural to want to “fix” things when someone you care about is upset. But often just being there to listen and acknowledge their feelings is the most helpful thing you can do. Try to resist the temptation to offer advice, suggest practical solutions or encourage them to be positive.

If someone is feeling angry about their diagnosis, they may sometimes direct this anger at you. This reaction can be hurtful, particularly if you’re trying to support them. But try to remember this is often because they’re upset about having cancer, rather than being upset with you.

3. Support for you

Although your friend or family member is the one with a breast cancer diagnosis, the experience will be difficult for you too.

You may feel frustrated that you cannot help your friend or family member as you would with other problems.  

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions, so it’s important you find support for your own physical and mental wellbeing.

Looking after yourself

To be there for your friend or family member, you need to look after yourself. This is also important if you are caring for someone with secondary breast cancer.

Make sure you eat properly, get some regular exercise and try to get enough sleep.

It’s also important you have some time for yourself. This could be going for a walk, having a drink with a friend or spending part of your day writing your thoughts in a diary. Allow yourself this time without feeling guilty.

If you’re finding it difficult to do these things or are feeling overwhelmed, let a friend, family member or your GP know.

Talking to other people

It can help to talk to close friends or family about how you’re feeling.

Occasionally you may feel very alone, even if you have friends and family around you. It can seem that no one else really understands what you’re going through. 

Having somebody to talk to can help you feel supported and prevent you becoming overwhelmed.

Communicating with people in a similar situation can help. You may find our forum or Someone Like Me service a good place to start. You can also call our helpline on 0808 800 6000.

There are several places you can turn to for additional support, including:

 

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Quality assurance

Last reviewed in October 2023. The next planned review begins in October 2026.

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