If you have a friend facing a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s not unusual to feel uncomfortable and unsure what to say.
But you don’t need to say much, according to Lesley Koeppel, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in New York City.
“There is nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know what to say,” she explains. “For example, simply saying, ‘There are no words that can make things better for you right now. Just know I am here for you and am thinking of you’ can go a long way.”
Here are seven ways you can be supportive to someone who’s living with breast cancer.
1. Normalize Chemo
Go with your friend to chemo sessions and talk about things other than health issues, says Leasa Ireland, a 10-year breast cancer survivor who went through eight years of treatment. “This helps the time go faster, and it’s pretty nice to hear silly, meaningless gossip when everything is so heavy. Bring the funny whenever you can!”
And, at the end of chemo, help your friend celebrate. “We had a hat/wig party where about 50 women wore crazy wigs to help celebrate my (hopefully) last session,” she says.
2. Give Them Emotional Space
Sometimes supporting a friend through breast cancer treatment means giving them space to navigate all ranges of emotions, not just the happy, hopeful emotions, says Ashley Park, a clinical therapist at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center in Loma Linda, California. “You want to be sure to never invalidate their emotions or experiences.”
3. Share Your Own Scars
If you’ve had breast cancer and have undergone surgery, share what that experience was like and even show your scars, says Barbara Becker, a writer in New York City who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. “I spent so much time online looking at scars and reconstructions and crying,” she says. Then, a colleague of her husband’s reached out and, in the most vulnerable and compassionate way, offered to show her own scars in person, “so I could decide if that was the way I wanted to go. I was blown away by this intimate, sincere gesture and have since paid it forward.”
4. Send a Small Gift
Whether it’s flowers, home-baked cookies, or a gift card, the message to your friend is clear: You’re thinking of them and wishing them well, Koeppel says. “Add a small note to accompany the gift,” she says. “All you need to write is, ‘Just a little something to let you know I’m thinking of you and wishing you the best during this difficult time.’”
Sally Wolf, a 47-year-old entrepreneur who was initially diagnosed in 2015 and is now living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, received a pack of beauty salon blowouts from her former boss when she was recuperating from breast cancer surgery.
“She knew that a blowout gift was something that would help me feel more like myself,” she says. “I was blessed to have incredible support.”
5. Be Specific When You Offer to Help
This is a great time to roll up your sleeves and volunteer to help your friend with daily tasks and errands. Offer to pick up your friend’s children at school. “If you’re a good cook, prepare a meal for them,” Koeppel says. “If you’re a good listener, take your friend out for coffee.” But make sure you’re clear about what you’re offering. “It’s better to say ‘Let me make a meal for you so it’s one less thing to worry about,’ versus ‘Let me know if I can make you a meal.’”
6. Be a Good Friend After Treatment
Dealing with life after treatment can be just as challenging. Try to be there during that reentry phase, says Ireland. “Things are hectic and busy at the beginning of treatment, and most friends are good about rallying around and providing support then,” she says. “Once treatment is over, it’s scary and you’re worried about what happens next.” This might be a good time to invite your friend to social gatherings. “She’ll attend if she can,” she adds.
7. Be Mindful of What You Say
Ultimately, avoid trying to fix your friend’s problem with unwanted advice, Koeppel says. “Sometimes you just need to listen without solving. That makes your friend feel understood, heard, and loved.”
Avoid comparing her health issues with those of others who have gone through something similar, and don't give medical advice or suggest holistic, alternative, or nutritional therapies if she hasn’t asked for your help, Koeppel advises. Unless you’re asked, don’t bring up your own medical issues or personal problems.
Finally, do your best to avoid clichés.
Try not to say things like “Just focus on what’s positive in your life,” or “Everything happens for a reason” and “This too shall pass.” “Those statements just aren’t helpful,” she says.