This piece has been a while in the making. I take a deep breath and offer these thoughts, as during my own journey with breast cancer I came to realize how very many lives breast cancer touches, whether it’s you or a woman you love, mother, sister, friend, cousin, and on and on. If a woman you love has breast cancer, I hope this piece might provide insight and ideas.
If you are the woman with breast cancer and this reflects your experience, but you may not have the words or energy to express, you can text or email this piece—”This is how I feel,” or “This is how I felt”—so people will know how to support you, without you needing to tell them.
I offer this reflection on my own experience, as I realized that when the words “breast cancer” enter a conversation, often people don’t know what to say. I can only speak from my own experience and what my mom and other dear friends have shared with me about their breast cancer journeys.
While this piece cannot encompass the infinite experiences of all women, I hope it might include common threads and make the ground firmer under your feet.
Some possible language and things to think about when a woman you love has breast cancer:
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” When in doubt, go with this. That was really all I needed or wanted to hear. An acknowledgement of the journey, no explaining, no joking, no trying to make me feel better, just an acknowledgment. I knew I could take the rest from there.
Listen. When this journey begins, you are bombarded with different procedures, tests, and possible treatments. Some are optional, others not so much. I learned that the decisions made are intensely personal for each woman. Listen to her and support her in her decisions. I know that I made decisions that those who love me did not initially agree with. It meant the world to me that they listened, supported me, and did not try to change my mind, even though I knew how they truly felt. It’s her body, her decisions. Listen, trust that she knows what’s best for her, and support.
Follow her lead. For some women, this is an external journey and others an internal one. Some women seek comfort outwardly, and others turn deep within. “It seems like the women I know with breast cancer go either all one way or the other,” a dear friend said to me. “Either it’s intensely public or intensely private, not too much in-between.” Whatever her natural inclination, follow that. Some women find great comfort and strength in sharing with their friend and family communities via email, social media, talking about it, sharing the journey. Whatever path the woman you love walks, follow her. It is such an internal and intuitive urge, it’s really not even a choice.
For me, the journey was extraordinarily private. It’s always been like this for me. When I go through tough times, I put my head down, go deep within to get through it, and emerge into the world after. Another reason I kept this journey private is that I did not want to see that look in peoples’ eyes. That look of sympathy. I wanted to feel and be as strong as possible.
If she is someone that goes within, often those who love her feel helpless at not being able to help or feel left out, not included. This is not personal. For that woman who needs to go within, providing her with both presence and space is an enormous support. She feels your love and presence. It’s just taking every ounce of her energy to get through this right now and when she emerges on the other side, she will connect. There are many reasons why the woman you love may go deep within for this journey. Presence and space.
Until she jokes about it, it’s too soon. I believe this comes from the very human response to make someone you love feel better through levity and humor and with the best of intentions. Until she jokes about it, it’s too soon. And, if you want to make her feel better and initially joke too soon, she understands where that comes from and the love it expresses. When my mom was going through chemo, we finally laughed when she described putting on her make-up foundation the day after shaving her head, “I went to put on my make-up today and where do you stop?” she said as she moved her hand up her forward and just kept going up and over her bare head. “Your neckline in the back?”
Grief and mourning. Her grief and mourning are real and deep. I learned later that after visiting dear friends during the depths of this journey, after I left the husband said, “That wasn’t Dawn. She just seems so sad.” I was so very, very sad. Doing my best to cover for that, but clearly there were cracks. Grief for my body. Grief about the journey. Just soul-deep grief, and I couldn’t figure out how to come out of it. I did my best to put a smile on, so as not to spread that grief. I read something Brad Pitt said about going through tough times that resonated with me, “I clean up okay on the outside, but it’s still pretty rough underneath.” That was me—with lipstick. Because my journey was private, most people did not find out until after all my surgeries, when I was on the other side of healing. Eventually, slowly and on it’s own time, the light began to shine in my soul again.
Pink. Not all women with breast cancer embrace the color pink immediately. Remember my own near Great Pink Balloon Rampage? It would be an understatement to say that I immediately embraced pink. I remember Mom expressing this, as well. Philosophically, I whole-heartedly embrace pink and the research and at last naming and holding space for a woman’s cancer marginalized in the medical community until recently that it represents. I just didn’t want to wear or see it during the most intense times. I embrace it now. It has taken quite a bit of time and I’m out of the deep throes of the journey. Other women find tremendous comfort, community, and support with pink. Whatever she feels, it is deep, visceral. Go with it.
Don’t even try to explain her experience to her. Please, please, please do not explain how she’s feeling or what she’s going through to her. That’s a great way to get throat-punched.
Just do it. If you want to provide support or show love, just do it. Do not say, “Let me know if you need anything.” That sentence hands another responsibility to the woman you love who is already doing all she can to keep one nostril barely above the water. Just send flowers or a card. Just send luxurious face creams or have take-out delivered. Put together a care package with an impossibly soft blanket that she’ll curl up under and feel your love. Send tea and candles. Bake homemade bread and send. Whatever feels right. Just do it.
If you’re the woman going through this. I’ve been on the other side of this for a few months now, some things that I would say to myself or any woman going through this. Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the very best you can. Trust yourself and your intuition. Sleep when you can. Create a soft nest with an impossibly soft blanket, candles, tea, flowers, meds. Stay there as much as possible. Your body will be different, not worse. Embrace the stories of your scars. This one will may take a lot of time. I’m just starting to maybe get there. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Trust what feels right for you.
While these ideas cannot encompass the infinite ways that a woman experiences breast cancer, I hope they might provide light in what can feel an opaque and unfamiliar landscape.
Follow her lead.
Trust that she knows the right decisions for her.
Presence and space.