How to be there for a friend surviving breast cancer (a story about colourful brassieres and scarves)

When Aisha was diagnosed of breast cancer, there were talks of surgery, chemotherapy and a special brassiere with extra padding on the left. In the initial flurry of visitations I barely spoke in private with her, there were always at least two other people from the mosque, her workplace or her family. When I called, our conversations were very short and awkward and we both tried to avoid saying ‘cancer’. It was very uncomfortable. I watched her retreat into a shell until the visitations stopped and she was left alone.
One morning after the surgery, it dawned on me that no one had remembered to buy the special brassiere with the extra padding on the left. I went shopping during my lunch break at work and just so you know, padded brassieres are expensive! Even worse, the look some of the attendants give you when you ask if it is possible to take the padding out of one bra cup is downright embarrassing. I was mostly glad Aisha did not have to go through that. After work, I paid her a surprise visit. Her left arm was swollen and painful and it hurt her to move it. I showed her the brassieres and we didn’t talk much.
Over a month later, Aisha called and demanded that I come right away to her house. When I got to her home, she had all the brassieres laid out on the bed. As soon as I entered the room, she turned to me with her eyes happy, twinkling, and said “Mimi, what are you up to, buying such beautiful lingerie for a forty-five year old woman with only one breast?”. That got us both laughing. I watched her try all the brassieres and they worked wonderfully well. She finally opened up about how terrible the past few months had been. The surgery that left an ugly red, diagonal scar on the left side of her chest, the pain and swelling in her arm after the surgery and the hair loss of chemotherapy. It was awful. When her husband got a barber to come to the house for a private appointment, she locked up herself in the room and refused to come out. Aisha would sit in front of the mirror for hours, trembling in anxiety as she examined and re-examined her right breast for lumps, fearing the worst.
We were both in tears when she finished talking. One of her children came into the room, met us crying, and panicked. That got us laughing once more. We decided to go shopping for new scarves during the weekend and considered going together to a beauty salon for a haircut the next week. I’ve learnt that when surviving cancer, there are all sorts of days. There are winning days, losing days and stalemates. Depending on the condition, there could be more of any in a period and it helps to have company on any sort of day. There was a tiny lump found in Aisha’s other breast several months later and this almost devastated her but we’ve been living life a day at a time in colourful scarves, storing up happiness and daring to hope.
 
Here are several things to do for a friend surviving breast cancer:
 
1.    Be a friend in the true sense of the word and not a cancer sympathizer in the context of a friend.
2.    Be sensitive. It is about your friend and her family and not much about you. Quite often, you may not be appreciated.
3.    A smart thing to do is ask yourself about how you feel about her cancer and how she is coping. If you have feelings that may cause her unnecessary anguish when expressed, never express those feeling or change them altogether.
4.    Be patient, it may take a while for your friend to open up about her feelings. Be ready to skip certain topics if she doesn’t want to talk about them.
5.    Be wary of forcing your feelings on her. Do not make her sad just because you feel she should be and do not over flog fighting cancer like a coach. Be gentle with your assertions.  
6.    When she talks, watch out for guilt and fear and be ready to allay those feelings.
7.    Have regular short conversations over the phone or text often to check on her. Also, call her family members to know her condition.
8.    Pay regular scheduled visits, and when you can’t, call or send texts.
9.    Don’t be a guest when you visit, help around the home in whatever way you can and bring treats for the family
10.    Be ready to accompany her to awkward places like the barbing saloon or the hospital for chemotherapy or check-ups.
11.    Depending on the condition of your friend, as much as possible, get her involved in her usual activities (both leisure and work) before the diagnosis.
12.    Be ready to try new things. Sometimes she may not want to try anything at all, so don’t be in a hurry.
13.    Even if you are a qualified doctor, try not to play doctor with her. If you are not satisfied with the medical care she is getting, raise your concerns and have a clear discussion with her and the family about it. Otherwise, do not make it your business to offer medical advice you see on the internet.
14.    Treating cancer is expensive in most parts of the world. If you are able to, provide financial support and only do so politely.
15.    Support her family with things like cooking, grocery shopping, buying drugs at the pharmacy. Care for them within respectable boundaries.
16.    You may plan with her family to organize events like picnics that help everyone relax and have some fun.
Remember there are all sorts of days in the life of a person surviving cancer. Providing support means celebrating the good days and helping to get through the bad days.

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