Personal Journey: Clueless About Cancer

A Wilmington breast-cancer survivor shares five tips for helping a loved one through the battle.

Once again, Breast Cancer Awareness month is upon us, and a deluge of pink has been splashed across sports arenas, clothing stores and television ads.

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Everyone wants in on the “awareness” factor, yet many people appear to be completely unaware of what to do when someone they know faces a breast-cancer diagnosis. How can I possibly help? What do I say? Should I even say anything at all?

As a young survivor who was diagnosed just after the birth of my daughter in 2012,
I know firsthand what it is like to hear those dreaded words: You have cancer. I had lived through the cancers of multiple friends and family members, but I quickly realized that this was just a glimpse of what was to come.

Until someone has lived with cancer in their home, it is extremely difficult to fully grasp its impact, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand by helplessly and watch someone close to you face this alone. With a few simple considerations, everyone can find a way to show love and support.

Not your sister’s cancer

The first thing to keep in mind is that your sister’s, friend’s or grandmother’s breast cancer is not necessarily the same as mine. Breast cancer is a term used to cover a wide array of different types of cancer in the breast. For example, my particular breast cancer was grade 3, stage 3A, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, that was both ER+/PR+ and HER2+. Chances are someone else’s breast-cancer experience is not going to be exactly like mine. So with that said, just because your Aunt Sally breezed right through treatment, don’t assume mine will be a walk in the park. Likewise, if everyone you’ve ever known with cancer has passed from the disease, now isn’t the best time to bring that up. Cancer is as unique as the people it affects. 

A family affair

In the moment, it is easy to put all of your focus on the friend, co-worker or loved one who is battling breast cancer, but don’t forget that breast cancer is a family affair. While I was in the midst of recovering from surgeries, chemo treatments and radiation, my husband, parents and in-laws were trying to keep our house running with three dogs, a 5-month-old baby and work. I wasn’t the only one scared for my life, so that is why it meant so much to my husband when my uncle began sending him a card in the mail every other week. There was nothing earth shattering about it, no fancy party or expensive gift. The quick, little notes simply reassured my exhausted, fearful, loving husband that he was not alone in this, and, yes, someone recognized that his life was pretty crappy right now, too. That meant everything.

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Not about you

As a teacher, caring for others is simply part of my wiring, so it was very strange and humbling when I found myself being the one who needed all the care and support. In the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I remember being bombarded with thoughtful gifts, dinners and cards. My first thought was, “When will I possibly have time to write thank-you notes to all of these people?” Luckily, my close friend Judy pulled me back from the edge and reassured me that in times like these thank-you notes do not apply. Of course, we all want to be appreciated for the kind things we do, but when someone is going through cancer treatment, it is essential to remember your present to them—whether it be a meal, gift or simply a text saying you’re just checking in—is about lifting them up, not showering you with appreciation. Beating cancer is a full-time job that requires a lot of physical and emotional strength. Instead of expecting an immediate response, add a little note to your card or meal that says, “No need to get back to me. Just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you and am here if you need anything.” That unconditional love and open door will be the ultimate support.


The positivity beast

There is an extremely fine line between being positive about a situation and completely invalidating what someone is going through. My particular cancer was considered high-risk, and my oncologist and family have had many discussions and made many treatment decisions based upon this. Just recently, I had my ovaries removed in the hopes of further reducing my chances of recurrence. Considering the hours spent contemplating this very personal choice, it can sometimes be infuriating when someone says, “Oh you can’t think like that,” or ever better, “It won’t come back.” No offense, because I’m certainly a “glass is half full” kind of gal, but when did you suddenly get your medical degree? Clearly, no one ever says these comments with anything but good intentions. We don’t like to think of people we care about hurting, and when someone looks like they’ve gotten through the worst, we certainly don’t want to imagine them getting knocked down again. But those of us in the mix don’t want to feel like people are minimizing our risks either. Facing what “could be” is healthy, so please don’t try to pooh-pooh the possibilities. Instead, take the time to listen to our fears and reassure us we will face whatever the future holds together.

Say something

Words hold power, they connect us, and their absence can be deafening. At the end of the day, what is most important is to say something. As my family stumbled our way through cancer treatment, we found we were most hurt by the people who seemed to completely ignore what we were dealing with. In particular, my father had a childhood friend who did not speak with him about my cancer for the first few months after I was diagnosed. Eventually, my father confronted his friend who responded with the thoughts that have run through the minds of so many: “I didn’t know what to say, so I just said nothing.” After they had a long talk, my father found the courage to visit an old colleague who had lost a child to cancer years ago. My father realized he was guilty of the same inaction for pretty much the same reasons. They talked for almost two hours. Lesson learned: It is better to say something badly and let someone know you care than to say nothing at all. 

Clearly, there is a time and a place for everything, so maybe the middle of a business meeting isn’t the best venue to bring up a recent breast cancer diagnosis. Likewise, there are many people who are very private. If you find yourself in a situation where a face-to-face conversation may prove awkward, write a little note. We are not looking for you to “fix” the problem. We simply want to know you care, and you are willing to walk this path with us.

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Sept. 28 marked three years since I was initially diagnosed. Since then, I’ve faced infections, reconstruction challenges and worries of recurrence. But I’ve also returned to my teaching job, watched my daughter devour a cupcake for her third birthday and celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary. As I look around my home in Wilmington, I see snapshots of all the wonderful, new memories created since our lives were turned upside down that Friday afternoon at the Helen Graham Cancer Center. And as I glance up from my desk at school, all of those cards that were written years ago remind me of the support I continue to have. They are splattered across a bulletin board in the back of my class, a testimony to the strength and encouragement words possess. After all, this lesson of love is not just for adults.

Battles are never won alone, and the war against breast cancer is no different. Keeping these points in mind will hopefully allow you to anticipate the needs of your friend or loved one as you support them through this life-changing experience. After all, your kindness and love could just be what turns the tide. 

Kate Madigan is a Wilmington resident who teaches at Kennett Middle School in Landenberg, Pa.  


Kate Madigan and her daughter.

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