Michelle Sowden, D.O., is a surgical oncologist at the UVM Medical Center.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This Friday, October 7, marks the 14th annual Breast Cancer Conference at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center. The free community event is for survivors, caregivers, and anyone whose life has been touched by breast cancer. Dr. Sowden will be speaking at the conference on Advances in Breast Cancer Surgery.  

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer in the United States with 250,000 women diagnosed annually.  That makes the odds quite good that someone you know and love will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

As a breast surgeon, I am frequently asked by friends and family what types of support they should provide for the special woman (or man) in their life that is going through this ordeal.  Over the past several years I have asked my patients this question to try to get a feel for what has been useful to them.  I have also searched the web for other suggestions and would like to condense these recommendations for you.

The first thing to determine is whether or not your friend wants any support.  A majority of my patients welcome all assistance with open arms, but some women feel that this is a very private time and may not want a lot of attention.  That said, even those that may not want a lot of support would certainly appreciate a “thinking of you” card.

Once you have determined that your friend wants your help, you now need to figure out what type of help would be most appropriate.  Breast cancer treatments vary radically from woman to woman so you may want to get an idea of what your loved one has in store so that you can tailor your assistance accordingly.

Here are several treatments and ways that you can help.  You can also consult the Cancer Patient Support Program for more information about resources available to help your friend cope with cancer.

Surgery – Lumpectomy
Most often this surgery is done on an outpatient basis.  Typically it is very well tolerated and women are back on their feet in a couple of days.

Ways to help:

  • Offer to take care of children/pets on the day of surgery, perhaps even for an overnight to give your friend time to sleep off anesthesia quietly.
  • Make a dinner for the first couple of nights, something light
  • Take your friend for a nice drive, she might want to get out of the house but may be taking pain meds and not be able to drive

Surgery – Mastectomy
This surgery is usually done on an inpatient basis with a variable stay in the hospital depending on whether or not reconstruction is done at the same time.  While also well tolerated, it is a bigger surgery and may require more assistance.

Ways to help:

  • As above, offer to help with children and pets.  This is a huge worry for most patients and awareness that everything is under control at home is an enormous relief.
  • Bring fun/useful things into the hospital such as:
    • Fuzzy jammies that open in the front
    • Warm fuzzy socks (hospitals are freezing!)
    • Magazines/books (pain meds make heavy reading turn into heavy sleeping so keep it light!)
    • Lip Balm/lotions
    • Healthy snacks (if it is ok with her doctor that she eats)
    • Mints (tooth brushing can kind of hurt the first few days)
    • Dry shampoo or help with a shampoo (if she had any surgery in the underarm this can be really hard and she may not be able to get her incisions wet so dry shampoo can be a blessing)
    • An iPod loaded with books/music/podcasts
    • Facial wipes
  • While your friend is in the hospital you may want to coordinate with family or co-workers to get meals to her house for the first week or so.  Check out Take Them A Meal to organize.
  • Offer to do laundry.  Usually heavy lifting is a no-no and so laundry is out of the question.  Wash the bra she was sent home in.  A tip for blood stains is hydrogen peroxide.
  • Again, a ride to someplace nice to get her out of the house.
  • Remember, your friend is probably very tired, so try to read her mood and keep visits appropriately short.

Chemotherapy regimens can be given either before or after surgery.  They usually last around 16 weeks in total with doses given every other week or every third week (obviously this is a gross generalization)

Ways to help:

  • Offer to go with your friend to one of their treatments.  The days can be long and boring and some diversion is usually appreciated.
  • Ask your friend which days of her chemo cycle she typically feels worst and offer to take kids/pets or bring meals on those days.
  • If you know anything about makeup or skin care, help out with those things; the chemo can really do a number on skin.  Nails are a particular problem.
  • Give your friend a warm fuzzy hat, especially in the winter here.
  • Many of the ideas above for mastectomy apply to patients while they are in the hospital getting their chemotherapy (ie: books, magazines, iPods etc.)

Radiation is typically given for 4-6 weeks daily (except weekends).  The most common side effect is fatigue and skin irritation.  Typically your friend will be given appropriate skin care products by their radiation oncologist.

Ways to help:

  • The biggest issue with radiation is the daily trip to the hospital.  Find out when your friend has appointments and see if she needs help getting to the appointments or needs help getting a child off the bus, etc.  For a patient without a car the number of appointments can be very stressful.

By all means none of these lists are exhaustive and I would love to hear from women who have been treated for breast cancer to see what they would add.

Michele Sowden, D.O., is a surgical oncologist at the UVM Medical Center.  Her clinical interests include Breast Cancer, Cancer Survivorship, High Risk Breast Cancer Screening.  

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