Even if your person appears strong on the outside, understand that their mind and body are still recovering from a trauma.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you may remember what it felt like immediately after your loss: friends checking in on you, bringing you food, and generally showing up for you. But as weeks fade into months and months into years, those check ins drop off — or disappear altogether.
This feeling is all too familiar to some breast cancer survivors who may suddenly feel alone as they struggle to adjust to their new normal.
Do you want to be there for your friend but have no idea where to start? We talked to mental health experts who work with cancer survivors to get the scoop on how you can continue to show up.
“Loved ones should understand that a great deal of loss has occurred for the survivor,” says Renee Exelbert, PhD, CFT, a psycho-oncologist and breast cancer survivor.
This includes loss of safety in their body, loss of safety in the world, and sometimes, the loss of physical body parts, or the loss of prior functioning, she explains.
With that loss comes relearning how to relate in the world.
Even if your person appears strong on the outside, “understand that their mind and body are still recovering from a trauma,” says Gabriela Gutierrez, LMFT, clinical oncology therapist at Loma Linda University Cancer Center.
The physical loss associated with breast cancer can lead to a kind of identity rebuilding, she says.
“Women are learning how to still see themselves as women even after their breasts have been altered or removed all together,” Gutierrez says.
You may be wondering why your friend isn’t being more celebratory. After all, they just got a clean bill of health and survived cancer.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 50 percent of breast cancer survivors worry their cancer will come back.
“This fear of recurrence is a very common phenomenon that patients face as their bodies learn how to adjust back into the ‘normal world’ and as their bodies process the physical and emotional trauma they just endured,” says Gutierrez.
It may be tempting to want to jump in and try to “fix” things or to try to take the burden off of them, but now is the time for your loved one to tell you what they need.
Because their process was so emotionally grueling, there are all kinds of things that may be innocuous to you but a trigger to them, such as a food they couldn’t eat while they were sick.
“Careful listening will demonstrate the desire to help the survivor feel connected to and understood,” says Exelbert. “Knowing that someone wants to help you is extremely meaningful.”
“But if they’re feeling stuck knowing what they need, you might want to offer to help them get back on track with exercise or other forms of self-care,” she says.
More than anything, your person just needs to know that you’ll continue to be there for them.
“Remind them to be patient with themselves, and to have compassion for themselves,” says Gutierrez. “Remind them it is OK to bring up hard conversations with you, so long as you feel like you are a safe person to do so with.”
They may be afraid to bring up these heavy emotions with you, and they need to know they’re not a burden to you.
You’ve been running with your friend for 10 years, and now that she’s healthy again you’re wondering why she’s not interested in running.
When someone has gone through a traumatic experience like an illness, perspectives and priorities will shift. Understand that it’s not personal.
“Loved ones need to be aware that the survivor may not place the same value or importance on previously shared values, relationships, or stressors,” says Exelbert. “What was at one time significant to the survivor, may no longer carry relevance at all.”
How can you take care of someone else if you’re not taking care of yourself?
“Many caregivers feel they do not deserve a voice as they were not the patient, but cancer is a relational illness, and your experience matters as well,” says Gutierrez.
You were also part of the emotional cancer journey, and your feelings are valid, too.
If processing your own grief and trauma around the experience is too much for you, consider finding a therapist to help you work through it.
Theodora Blanchfield is a Los Angeles-based writer. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Bustle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, and Mic, among other sites. She blogs about grief, mental health, and using running to handle it all on Preppy Runner.