We asked others who’ve been through it for their insights
It’s a week since TV presenter Julia Bradbury underwent mastectomy surgery following her recent breast cancer diagnosis – and her sister, Gina Bradbury Fox, has opened up about how it’s been “a complete roller-coaster”.
Gina has been by Julia’s side as much as possible. “We fluctuate from hysteria, to being in floods of tears,” she said in an interview.
Julia – known for shows like Cornwall And Devon Walks With Julia Bradbury and The One Show – has been sharing updates on Instagram. The 51-year-old expressed thanks for her sister, saying: “Gina has been an absolute rock, doing what she always does brilliantly, swinging into action, being a practical and emotional mainstay.”
The Bradbury sisters are shining a light on the emotional impact of breast cancer, and the vital role of support. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, with around 55,000 women and 370 men diagnosed each year, according to Breast Cancer Now.
So, how can you support a friend going through breast cancer treatment? We asked a range of people with lived experience to share their insights:
Don’t try to ‘fix’ it
“One thing we often talk about is providing empathy, rather than sympathy – it can be really helpful if you’re able to sit with your friend and acknowledge that they’re going through a really hard time, but without trying to ‘fix it’,” says Ceinwen Giles, director of partnerships and evaluation at Shine Cancer Support (shinecancersupport.wordpress.com).
“So often, we get surrounded by people who want to lift us up and do something – which definitely has a place – but it’s also important to recognise that your friend will be in a really difficult place and facing their own mortality, and they may just need someone to listen to their worries without trying to change things, or feel like they have to make them better.”
Check in and ‘be normal’
Fabian Bolin, founder of social media network War On Cancer (waroncancer.com), says people can sometimes drop away when someone is diagnosed with cancer.
“You can get incredible friendships during treatment, but also, people are just unable to overcome their fear of talking to you because of the cancer. You just want to sit and watch a movie or eat a pizza with someone, and they simply disappear because they feel they don’t have the words to talk to you,” says Bolin.
“You just want them to be aware of your cancer, but not see you as defined by it,” adds Bolin. “You want them to be normal. When you are being treated [for cancer], there are long periods where you aren’t ill, just tired – I could go out and do things. Those days become really precious.”
Help them connect with others who’ve been through it
“Help them find other people who’ve already been through it. I found the wisdom of others immensely helpful,” says cancer rehabilitation personal trainer Carolyn Garritt, author of Get Your Oomph Back: A Guide To Exercise After A Cancer Diagnosis (published by Hammersmith Press in November), who has also been through breast cancer herself.
Be a walking buddy
“To get outdoors and have some gentle exercise will really help with anxiety and some of the emotional turbulence in the early days,” adds Garritt, who also says being a “walking buddy” is a great way to show support.
“Getting outdoors in nature will help them generate some endorphins and calm their mind. It can also form part of their ‘prehab’ to prepare their body and mind for treatment.”
Leadership coach Leigh Howes, whose new book Foundations To Lead From is out in November (leighhowes.com), was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, and agrees time outdoors can be a big help.
“You have to find the thing that refills your cup, so for me, just being outside was everything,” says Howes. “I had this favourite spot I liked to visit and sit under this big oak tree that looked out on a lovely view, and I would just sit there by myself, with friends, and it helped rebalance everything.”
Gift them a journal
If you’d like to give a thoughtful gift, consider a journal, suggests Howes. “Journaling is a great way to record how you’re feeling and to keep a diary throughout your journey,” she says. “I practised a lot with journaling gratitude – but not forced, just really about where my head was at.”
Set up a friends’ WhatsApp group
Check they’re happy with this idea first, of course. But as lovely as it is having lots of people messaging, treatment can be very exhausting – so anything that alleviates the pressure could be really helpful.
“By creating a WhatsApp group, I was able to shout for practical support, and it was absolutely a blessing for me,” says Howes. “It was quite cathartic to share where I was at in my journey and enabled me to communicate with lots of people at one time, rather than telling people the same thing over and over again.”
Support from afar helps too
If you’re not able to see your friend in person, life coach Laura Bentley (thatbalancedlifecoaching.com) suggests finding ways to support from afar. Bentley’s sister was living in a different country when she was diagnosed.
“Over the course of her treatment, it was so hard not to see her in person and give her big hugs or help out practically, but we kept in touch via video calls and sent care packages to help make life a little easier.”
Create a playlist
“A great way to support a friend with breast cancer would be to create a playlist on Spotify that they could use for relaxing or getting to sleep, or some banging tunes for when they are walking into chemo,” says Clare Filler, who after two decades as a teacher is now launching a writing career and blogged about her own experience of breast cancer (anonappreciationofbreastcancer.wordpress.com).
“Songs that connect the two of you will be comforting, remind them they are not alone, and that brighter times are ahead.”
Make a ‘chemo kit’
If your friend is facing chemotherapy, Filler also suggests a ‘chemo kit’ as a great gift. “Chemo is frightening but it is also boring, some patients have cycles that last several hours. It is very common to get cold, particularly your extremities, so cosy socks, hand warmers or a blanket will be very useful and comforting,” she says.
“Other things a chemo patient will appreciate are lip balm, hand cream, and a good book to read.”