An advanced breast cancer diagnosis is alarming news, not just for the patient but for family, friends, and loved ones as well. Find out what you need to know if you're caring for someone with stage 4 breast cancer.

Defining Stage 4 Breast Cancer

When a patient has stage 4 breast cancer, it means that their cancer has spread, or metastasized, from the breast into at least one other area of the body. Sometimes breast cancer metastases are found in the brain, liver, lymph nodes, lungs, or bones.

Understanding the Effects of Stage 4 Breast Cancer

The Physical Effects

Stage 4 breast cancer and its treatment affect the whole body. Depending on the locations of the cancer, and the treatments chosen, physical effects include:

  • pain, both localized and “all over”
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • changes in appearance, such as hair loss, dark circles under the eyes, brittle nails

The Emotional Effects

In addition to the many emotions that accompany an advanced breast cancer diagnosis, the pain and fatigue of cancer can make everyday activities feel like too much. Things your loved one once enjoyed may become too difficult or too tiring. Changes in her appearance may be devastating to her. All of the physical effects of the cancer lead to emotional effects, which can include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • social isolation
  • fear
  • embarrassment

Caring for a Loved One

When a loved one is diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, the news can be devastating. If you are also tasked with caring for that loved one, the feelings of grief and stress can quickly become overwhelming. 

Taking Care of Yourself

Remember, the first step toward taking good care of your loved one is taking care of yourself. After all, how can you expect to be anyone’s caretaker if you aren’t taking care of your own needs? Some good ways to make sure you’re at your best include:

  • Schedule time for yourself. Set aside time each day for “me time,” and make that time non-negotiable.
  • Find a source of support. Family and friends can be great sources of support, but you may also want to find a support group created for people in your situation. These groups can be found locally, or even online.
  • Ask for help. It can be all too easy to spread yourself too thin when you’re taking care of a family member with stage 4 breast cancer. Make sure you ask for help when you need it. You don’t have to be the only one who mows the lawn, cleans the house, does all the grocery shopping, and sits with your loved one all day.
  • Acknowledge your emotions. A stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis is scary, not just for the patient but also for those who love them. If you find that your emotions become overwhelming at times, talking to a professional counselor can help you cope with the situation.

Taking Care of Your Loved One

There are many ways to help a family member with stage 4 breast cancer, and you’ll learn many more as you go. Sit down with your loved one and talk about how you can help. Ask which day-to-day tasks she would like to do herself, and which she would like assistance with.

Help her look and feel more like herself. If she loses her hair, offer to take her shopping for a wig (if she wants one) or pretty scarves or caps. Call or visit your local American Cancer Society location, or go online, to see what programs they have available. Some offer free wigs and other head coverings. The Look Good Feel Better program is a wonderful way to learn how to help her look her best during treatment.

Understand that there may be emotional ups and downs, and try not to take them personally. Give your loved one space to work through her emotions at her own pace, but be there for support when needed. Help her find support groups online or locally so she can speak with others in similar situations.

Keep up with all of her doctor and treatment appointments, and take her to them. Keep a notebook of questions the two of you think of in between appointments, so you remember to ask them. Help her with research so that you both understand treatment options. 

Just be there. You won’t always say or do “the right thing,” and you definitely won’t have all the answers. That’s okay. Just being there can go a long way.