Coping with a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing chemotherapy can be one of the scariest times in a person’s life. But both experts and cancer survivors agree that the best way to cope during this time is to arm yourself with a wide network of support.
Your oncology treatment team will be one of your biggest supporters during your treatment sessions and afterwards, so share your needs openly and honestly during every step of the process.
Beyond your treatment team, help is available in your local community and across the world. And finding support is probably easier than you think. Consider these suggestions as you start to enlarge your network and find the best tools for this next phase of your life.
An important first step is to learn all you can about your diagnosis. Being an educated and informed patient can make you a better partner in the chemotherapy treatment team. It can also help you know what to expect and better understand what type of help you’ll need during this journey.
Ask your oncologist for any patient education materials they may have about your condition. You should learn the basics of the disease, the type of breast cancer you have, the stage of your cancer, how it’s treated, and possible outcomes after treatment. Learning ways to cope with the many emotions you’ll have as well as how to manage your cancer care are also important to read about.
While the Internet may be helpful, be wary of what websites you’re using. Do your research with reliable, trusted cancer organizations that provide free resources for patients and their families. Look to see that the information is up-to-date and written or reviewed by oncology experts. The following are some of the top sources:
- National Cancer Institute—As part of the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website has a vast list of cancer-related topics.
- American Cancer Society—Get information about your cancer and read stories of hope. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has local offices in many U.S. cities and a 24-hour Information Center.
- Breastcancer.org – Read about the latest breast cancer information, research, and statistics on this nonprofit organization’s website.
- Cancer.net—The site of the American Society of Clinical Oncology provides oncologist-approved cancer information for people living with cancer and those who care for them.
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network—An alliance of 21 of the country’s leading cancer centers.
- Medline Plus—The U.S. National Library of Medicine, part of National Institutes of Health, offers easy-to-read information on their website.
- Oncolink—The first cancer information website sponsored by the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Ask Family and Friends
When your family and friends learn about your cancer diagnosis, you’re sure to get many offers of help. Questions of “What do you need?” and “What can we do to help?” are common. Don’t feel guilty or hesitate about accepting their offers. Now is the time to focus on you. Saving your energy and reducing your stress is one of the most important things you must do for yourself.
Your support circle can help in more ways than you think:
- Meals—Pick a well-organized family member or friend to coordinate meal deliveries. Your support circle will be happy to take turns bringing packed lunches and dinners to your home during your treatment time. If you’re staying away from home, choose a hotel that offers an in-room refrigerator so you can take the meals on the road.
- Household chores—Another organized helper can coordinate chore duties among your family and friends. Think about all you do in a normal week and ask your coordinator to help you make a list of what your duties include and how they can be shared with others. Your list might include chores like laundry, caring for your pets, and grocery shopping.
- Clothing—Ask someone to host a “Hat and Wig Party” in your honor. Guests bring hats, wigs, scarves, some funny and some serious, and you have the added bonus of a night of fun.
- Childcare—Leaving your children in the care of close family and friends who offer free help can be a big relief, both emotionally and financially.
- Fundraising—Look to join or sign-up for a free fundraising website. These sites allow family and friends to make online donations for your medical bills. You can send thank you messages to your donors directly from the site and give updates on your treatment.
Even if you live alone or live far away from close family and friends, help is available. Start by asking your work’s human resources department or the leaders of other organizations you’re associated with .
Join a Support Group
Despite the attention from loved ones and their cancer treatment team, many patients still feel overwhelmed and isolated. That’s why many turn to support groups for additional help.
In a support group, patients can share their cancer experiences and frustrations with other members who’ll know exactly what they’re feeling. Support groups can also be a great source for ideas on how to deal with side effects and other emotional struggles. And, research shows that breast cancer patients who belong to support groups have better coping skills, better moods, and experience less pain, depression, and anxiety. Other cancer patients or oncology professionals often leads these groups.
Most cancer centers offer some type of support group, so ask your oncologist for information. If there’s not one at your facility, ask to be directed to another local organization that offers one. Also, ask about support groups for families. Family members share the stress of your cancer, so having someone they can talk to can also be helpful
Another good option is to go online. Many cancer organizations offer online support groups, discussion boards, and blogs as other ways to connect. This can be especially helpful if there’s no support group in your area that meets at a convenient location and time.
Online support groups also give you the opportunity to connect with other cancer patients from around the world to give a bigger perspective of how others are coping with their treatment. Some online groups are closed to members only, and require you to register before you’re able to participate. Other groups are open to the public and can be read by anyone. Keep this in mind when sharing very personal information.
Here are a few cancer organizations where you can start your virtual search:
- WhatNext (Cancer Support Network)
- Cancer Survivors Network
- Association of Cancer Online Resources
While these are great places to start, if possible, try to find a support group that’s specific to your needs and your type of breast cancer. You’ll likely get more out of each group session and will be able to connect more with other members. For example, HER2Support is a resource for patients, caregivers, family members, and friends of those who are HER2 positive.
Look for Long-Term Help
Cancer treatment can become a huge burden on you and your family. The physical, emotional, and financial tolls can add up quickly, particularly if you need chemotherapy. The best way to avoid this is to be sure to have a support system in place for many weeks and months into the future.
As you continue your treatment, your needs for help may change. For example, at first you may not need transportation to treatment sessions, but down the road you may become weaker and need someone to drive you there and back. Or, while your health insurance provided by your employer covered most of your health expenses, you may need to quit your job if your health declines. Thinking of these scenarios may be difficult, but it’s important to plan for emergencies.
Start a list of organizations that offer different services that you can turn to as the need arises. Include organizations that offer support like assistance with living expenses and medications, housing, transportation, and meal deliveries.
Here are several organizations that offer guided support:
- Pharmaceutical companies. Most drug companies offer support to help patients manage the cost of their cancer prescriptions. Check the website of the drug’s maker to see if a patient drug assistance program is available. Each company has its own set of requirements for who qualifies for help.
- RxHope. For patients who need help navigating patient assistance programs, RxHope helps get medications for free or at a low co-pay.
- Patient Access Network Foundation. Low-income patients with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer can get help with out-of-pocket costs for cancer care.
- Local organizations. Service or volunteer organizations in your community like The Salvation Army, United Way, and Catholic Charities may offer help with living expenses and medications. Local churches and lodges may also have programs to help patients in need. Often, there are local not-for-profit organizations specifically for people with cancer. They may offer financial assistance, home-delivered meals, groceries, transportation, help at home, or wigs.
- Joe’s House. An organization that provides an online lodging guide, Joe’s House helps cancer patients and their families find discounted places to stay near treatment centers.
- Hope Lodge. This program of the American Cancer Society offers a free place to stay for families undergoing treatment away from home. Contact the American Cancer Society to see if there’s a location near your treatment center.
- National Patient Travel Center. This resource guide lists all charitable, long-distance medical transportation available to patients in need, including airline tickets and ground travel.
- Road To Recovery. This American Cancer Society program coordinates a network of volunteers who provide transportation for cancer patients who need a ride to treatment.
- National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. This program offers a variety of assistance for older adults and people with disabilities needing services like home healthcare, transportation, home-delivered meals, caregiver support, and health insurance assistance.
- CancerCare. Besides online support groups, this New York-based nonprofit provides financial assistance for transportation, home care, and childcare.
- Look Good Feel Better. This American Cancer Society program offers classes and free wigs and makeup for women receiving breast cancer treatment.
- Federal and State government food programs. Several government programs are available to help low-income residents with food costs, including: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Women’s, Infants and Children (WIC), and Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Call the National Hunger Hotline or your local health/social services department to learn how to apply for these services.
Finding the right support tools to get you through your cancer journey will require some work and take a good amount of time, but it’s time well spent. Learning what help is available will make it easier to cope with the demands of treatment.