Offering Support for the Newly Diagnosed: Tips for People Who’ve Been There

March 23, 2015

New LBBC blogger Joanne Hampton posts tips for offering the best possible peer support for people newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

joanne hampton photoMy journey has consisted of nine surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and a positive diagnosis of BRCA1. I am an 11 year survivor. I have spoken at numerous events, sat on different committees, ran many successful fundraisers, and yet, I still feel awkward talking to someone who is newly diagnosed. They look up at me like I am about to reveal some great secret advice to get them through this. Tears begin to form in their eyes they ask me questions like “What now?”

Even though I, too, am a breast cancer survivor and have traveled a similar path, I don’t always know what to say. Because of this I was inspired to do some research for myself and other breast cancer survivors who want to offer that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for someone recently diagnosed.

I want to focus on some tips to think about when you are asked to speak to someone who is diagnosed with cancer. So that you can make it easier by giving them strength, make a difference by inspiring, and help by holding a hand.

Tip #1: Each person’s reaction is different.

This is very important. I can’t stress this enough. The most miniscule thing to one could be earth shattering to another. To me, losing my hair was the least of my worries. But, I have met a lot of women who were devastated and felt they had lost their dignity along with their hair. A person can’t always help or control how they feel. There’s no rhyme or reason, there’s no right or wrong but, they are real feelings and people will react differently, based on those feelings. Not all wounds are so obvious. Walk gently in her life.

Tip #2: It is not all about you and your journey or the journeys of others.

Be sensitive to her journey. Make sure you do not compare. Try and avoid saying things such as, “I know how you feel,” or “I know how hard it can be”. She needs to be herself and take her own journey. The secret is changing saying “I know” to “I understand”… because to an extent you do. As for comparing, most of the time people don’t even know they’re doing it. We don’t want her to feel bad if she isn’t living up to the expectation she sets for herself based on your experience.

Tip #3: Keep your opinions to yourself.

She is already dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the side effects of treatment. The last thing she needs is added drama when already dealing with feeling helpless, frustrated, confused and even depressed. Let’s keep it simple. You are the last person who should be stressing her out, because you know everyone else is. Keep in mind all of the emotions that are running crazy through her head. You should be the sanity not the drama.

Tip #4: Sometimes saying nothing is when you have shared the most.

Sometimes she just needs to be heard, have a good cleansing cry or just have her hand held. I sometimes have to bite my tongue but, I remind myself that silence is a source of great strength. I know a smile, a nod, or a sigh, are all worth a million words. Sometimes there are moments where there is nothing that can be said. Words aren’t everything.

Tip #5: Sometimes the only way to speak is from your heart, not your head.                  

This is a time where logic does not come into play. Trust your intuition. Speak with compassion, love, understanding, and kindness.

Tip #6: Are you up for visitors?

The patient may be overwhelmed and it is a lot easier to deny company. Understanding this is all the more reason they may need a visit. I like to make it a little difficult for her to say “no” to me. I use my 3 parter: Are you up for visitors? I’d really like to see you. How about Thursday or Friday afternoon. But, keep in mind and respect that some people need time alone to processes the experience and diagnosis.

Tip #7: Reach out.

Let them know you are thinking about them. Send a text or email once in a while. It is the gesture of presence that can bring a smile to one’s face. To know that they being thought of can truly brighten one’s day. It is as simple as saying, “I care about you” by spending time together. From a girls’ day out to sharing ice cream on the couch. From a movie to a walk in the park.

Tip #8: Offer practical help and support.

This is where you, who know your talents/gifts best, can put them to good use by offering a helping hand. Whether you’re a great baker, you love to clean, running errands is your thing, you cook like a true chef, or love watching the kids. The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.

I would like to remind you that for the newly diagnosed patient you are understanding, you are strength, you are inspiration and you are hope.  Keep in mind to the world you are just one person, but to one person you are the world.

Joanne Hampton is a mom of two, a breast cancer survivor, community advocate and Public Relations and Marketing Director for Breast Investigators.

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