Mónica Caballero, a psycho-oncologist at the AECC, with a patient. / SUR

How to be supportive to someone who is suffering from breast cancer

It is as counterproductive to ignore the situation and not talk about it as it is to keep asking the patient how she is feeling


The news that you have breast cancer has a psychological impact. "The first thing that passes through people's minds is that they are going to die, or could die," explains Mónica Caballero, a psycho-oncologist with the AECC cancer association in Malaga. That moment of diagnosis tends to be the most acute and most critical, because it is when fear of the future occurs, with uncertainty and anxiety which will be present throughout the process: all the time there is uncertainty, the anxiety will remain.

The help of relatives and friends is essential so that patients have a shoulder to lean on. "In the guidelines we give to families and friends, we recommend being available for them and saying 'I'm here for whatever you need, whenever you need it' .

They need to know you are there for them, but don't suffocate them, because there are times when the person needs to be alone, to adapt and think about their future," says Mónica.

Be there, but don't overdo it

Express interest, but don't keep asking how they feel

Mónica Caballero says people should express interest in how the patient is, but not keep asking them how they feel all the time. It is important to show that you are available if needed, for example by asking "What can I do to help you?" she says. People should also be honest, and say "I'm here to help, but I don't know what to do," she explains. The patient will be very grateful, because the message she receives is that someone is interested and concerned about her, but won't be too pushy. You should ring every three or four days, or once a week, depending on the relationship with the patient, so she knows you are there if needed. Express support from a distance, and show affection by, for example, sending them a bunch of flowers or basket of fruit, Mónica suggests.

Maintain communication

"Do you feel like talking about your illness"?

Because cancer is a difficult subject to deal with, people normally don't talk about it and communication breaks down. This should be avoided. It is essential to remain close to family members, friends and work colleagues. One recommendation from this psycho-oncologist is to ask the patient "Do you feel like talking about this?" because that gives them a way of talking about their emotions. Talking openly about cancer is beneficial because it breaks down the taboos around the illness. "But, I must stress, always respect the patient's wishes. If she says she doesn't want to talk about it, or she seems uncomfortable when you bring it up, take notice, but don't distance yourself from her so she doesn't feel alone," says Mónica.

Don't let her overdo things

"Rest and look after yourself" is a way of saying "I love you"

Some women with breast cancer carry on with their daily lives as if nothing was happening. They take the children to school, cook meals and do the housework as usual, and people think they are fine. "But you have to realise that this woman is actually overburdened," says Mónica. In that situation, it's good to ask what you can do to help, and tell them to rest and look after themselves. "It's a way of saying you love them, and that's the message that gets through most clearly," she explains.

In the case of relatives who live with the patient, when they detect a change in her they should help and look after her, but without being overprotective. "She needs to carry on as normally as she can, but if her husband sees that she is worn out when she gets up to get the kids' breakfast, he should tell her it is too tiring for her and that he will do it instead. If she agrees, then go ahead, because just that simple gesture helps her a lot, but if she says no, then you have to respect her decision," says Mónica.