How to talk to friends about your breast cancer

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Talking with friends and family about your breast cancer diagnosis can present some unique challenges. Dr. Mary Jane Massie, Attending Psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, offers some advice for women battling the disease and those who support them.

How to talk to friends about your breast cancer
  • It is important to understand that it may be difficult for friends or family to talk to you because they may feel overwhelmed.
  • You should try and seek support from those who love you the most.
  • Remember that your friends do mean well, even if they do not approve of the way you are handling your treatment. It may be that they are not as well informed about breast cancer treatment options.
  • Everyone has different views on the proper treatments. You should choose the treatment that best suits you and one that you are comfortable with.
  • If a friend is being consistently unhelpful it is okay to let the relationship calm down and not continually inform them of how you are handling things.
  • You should talk with your doctor on how to best inform your children based on their ages; what is developmentally appropriate to tell them will vary.
  • Whether you immediately tell colleagues of your breast cancer diagnosis or decide to keep it to yourself is entirely up to you. If you feel your health issues are your private business then you are entitled to keep it that way. Some women may tell their immediate boss and/or human resources only, to let them know they are undergoing treatment and may have increased absences. Others prefer to keep it to themselves, to avoid the workplace becoming all about their condition.
  • If you do decide to tell people about your breast cancer it is an opportunity to gain support.

For more information on talking to family, friends and coworkers about your breast cancer, go to www.komen.org or call Komen for the Cure’s helpline at 1-800-IM AWARE.

Transcript

LISA: I'm Lisa Birnbach. If you or someone you love is battling breast cancer, how do you talk about it with your friends, loved ones, colleagues at work? Joining me to guide us through this tricky landscape is Dr. Mary Jane Massie, psychiatrist who specializes in breast cancer issues at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Dr. Massie how do you deal with a friend who will not talk to you about your disease?

DR. MASSIE: I think that's heartbreaking when that occurs. I think the woman who has breast cancer needs all the support she can get from the people who really love her. But I think most women understand that when people walk away from us when we're sick, it probably says something about how much difficulty our friend is having knowing what to say to us. It may be related to how much difficulty she's having talking with us because she's helped other people, perhaps her mother, perhaps a sister deal with the same illness. And the thoughts and memories she's having are just overwhelming to her.

LISA: How do you deal with friends who then disapprove of the course you've chosen to deal with your breast cancer?

DR. MASSIE: I think that what we warn people is that friends are well-meaning. They do love us, but they're probably not as well informed about treatment options as we are once we've had a chance to talk with our doctors. They're not us and so what our friend might pick for herself may not be really the direction of treatment that we would select for ourselves. I think our friends who bring books, who bring articles, who want us to see other doctors, different facilites, they mean very very well. But I think that we have to select our own treatment team, we have to find people we're comfortable working with. We have to find people we feel are giving us information that is most useful to us. And we really must make our own decisions.

LISA: If you think a friend is a bummer, do you recommend sort of leaving them out of the loop for a while?

DR. MASSIE: I think that sometimes when we're ill and when we're not ill we make decisions about advice that we want to hear. Yes I think that if a friend is consistently not helpful that it's perfectly fine when we're sick to let that relationship rest a little bit. 

LISA: That's a nice way to put it. But I guess with kids you want to protect them from being too terrified about the outcome and that Mommy's still going to be around and that Mommy's not going to die from this disease. 

DR. MASSIE:I think that women with children do a terrific job talking with their doctors, talking with all of the mental health support staff available about how to best inform children of different ages in developmentally appropriate language about what's wrong with mom.

LISA: Mm-hmm.

DR. MASSIE: So what we tell our three year old, what we tell our thirteen year old, and what we tell our twenty three year old are very different pieces of information. 

LISA: At work, do you recommend that women with breast cancer inform their colleagues when they are diagnosed? Is this something to keep a secret until it's unkeepable?

DR. MASSIE: Women have very different approaches. Some women make the decision appropriately for them. Their health issues are their private issues. They may talk with their human resources department. They may tell their immediate boss that they have an illness, that they have cancer, that they have breast cancer and they're going to be absent from work for treatment, for surgeries, for follow up visits. But they choose not to tell the people they relate with regularly because they're concerned that they are going to just talk about my cancer and I don't want to do that at work. I want to go to work to work. Other people are very open about aspects of their life with most people they work with. And so a lot of women quite naturally will tell the entire workplace and gain tremendous emotional support. If you tell, you have a chance to get support. 

LISA: Right, right, thank you so much Dr. Massie. 

DR. MASSIE: You're welcome. 

LISA: For more information please go to Susan G. Komen for the Cure at www.komen.org or call the Komen for the Cure helpline at 1-800-IM-AWARE. I'm Lisa Birnbach. 

 

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Mary Jane Massie

    Dr. Mary Jane Massie Psychiatrist Dr. Mary Jane Massie is an Attending Psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Cornell's Weill Medical College. She specializes in treatment of women with or at high risk of developing breast cancer. more about this expert »

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