During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, survivors like Florence Murrian and mental health professionals share insight on offering support. Here, Murrian and friends volunteer for a supplies drive.
Photo courtesy of Florence Murrian
When Florence Murrian was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer last December, the treatment recommended by her oncologist was a lumpectomy and radiation. In an attempt to help, Murrian’s sister urged her to seek multiple medical opinions and insisted she ask for a more aggressive treatment. Murrian, 54, felt overwhelmed by the barrage of advice.
“It was the friends who just listened to me as I sometimes rambled on and on that gave me comfort,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t want to talk about it or cry about it. I needed to feel normal and sometimes was in denial. What I didn’t want is someone asking me why I wasn’t acting a certain way.”
When a close friend of loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, the reaction can range from aggressive advice giving as in Murrian’s case to excessive questioning to learning every detail. During October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some survivors and mental health professionals share insight on offering support.
“Sometimes I had conversations with friends that made me feel worse than I already felt,” said Murrian, who lives in Arlington. “I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t want advice and I didn’t want to have to cheer up my friends.”
Conversations designed to convey concern can go awry. “I recommend avoiding invalidating comments like, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ or forecasting comments such as ‘Everything will be fine,’” said Joanne Bagshaw, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Montgomery College.
Though it is natural to be concerned and want specific details about a loved one’s condition, sometimes the best words are no words at all, says Professor of Psychology at George Mason University. “There may be times to mostly listen and other times to joke around,” said Short. “Plan to continue enjoyable activities together, but confirm whether your loved one wants to get together.”
Avoid non-specific offers to help, says Short. “I recommend taking the perspective of your friend and loved one and imagining what she might like to hear,” he said. “You should express empathy and support … prepare small meals or snacks to share. Offer to help with household tasks, errands, or caring for family members or pets.”
For those who are unsure, considering your loved the best source of information about her needs is more effective than making assumptions, suggests Bagshaw. “I do recommend asking how you can be of support,” said she said. “One can simply say, ‘Just let me know how I can help.’”
“It is good to be encouraging, but realistic,” added Short. “Follow cues from your friend or loved one on how to interact.”
Listening, validating and inquiring about her overall wellbeing can be more comforting than offering opinions or sharing stories about other women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Everyone’s situation and diagnosis is different,” said Bagshaw.
“Avoid advice and assumptions unless you are asked for your opinion,” added Short. “Some examples [of things] to say are, ‘I am sorry that this happened to you. I want you to know that I care about you. How are you doing? I want to help’"