It’s October. ‘Tis the season for me to think about Susan twice as much everyday and remember the one equation my astrophysicist best friend taught me that I actually understood:
ACTION > AWARENESS
There isn’t much that I can add about what you can do during October that hasn’t already been said. Susan said it best, of course, and new voices are rising all the time to remind us that living with breast cancer isn’t made any easier by us posting the color of our bras on Facebook or not wearing a bra on October 13.
What I can add is something for the friends of women living with breast cancer. It’s something that I’ve wanted to write about for years now, but I realized that I wasn’t really that great at it, and certainly didn’t have enough knowledge to fill a book.
I can tell you what I did wrong, and maybe think of something I got right.
In the beginning . . .
One night, your best friend calls you on the phone. She has a three-year-old and a five-month-old. You are pregnant with your first child. Conversations had turned from babies to breast cancer over the past week because her mother-in-law had just been diagnosed and was about to start treatment. With you being the child of a breast cancer survivor, she turned to you to answer questions about helping a family member and dealing with telling the children.
Only this night, she says, “In my internet research about breast cancer, I found something. Something called Inflammatory Breast Cancer.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” I reply.
“I think I have it,” she says slowly.
Here’s where you can go right or wrong.
Wrong thing to say, “Oh, Sus. There’s no way you have breast cancer. You have no family history. You’re breastfeeding. You’re only 34. I’m sure it’s just mastitis.”
No. Don’t do that. Don’t dismiss a friend’s concerns. Don’t slide down a tear filled slope of worry with them, but don’t dismiss them. EVER.
Right thing to say, “Wow. That must be scaring you. Have you made an appointment to have it checked? Do you need me to go with you?”
After the initial diagnosis . . .
There will be a diagnosis. A diagnosis is not answers. Let me say that again. The diagnosis creates more questions that you can ever imagine. It does NOT provide answers.
Your best friend will tell you the diagnosis even before she has fully processed the news fully herself. There will be silence on the phone. Stay in it. Stay with her.
Wrong thing to do next is pepper her with questions, “What will they do? Is there treatment? Have you told the kids?”
A question you could ask are, “Do you need me to come?”
Right thing to do next is possibly cry with her. Calmly. It might be to curse. It might be to apologize for saying the wrong thing the day before. You won’t know exactly until you -
The thing is, with a diagnosis of Inflammatory Breast Cancer in particular, everything about what you thought you knew of the future is gone. The appointment you thought would give you answers, the one where you get your diagnosis? That appointment only turns everything into uncertainty.
Living in uncertainty is one of the hardest things to ask someone to do.
Asking a billion questions of someone living in uncertainty is never helpful. Don’t do it.
Something right I learned along the way was to ask in the first couple of minutes of our conversations, “What do you want to talk about? Life or cancer?”
Most of the time, the answer was “life.”
Because really, what your best friend with a new cancer diagnosis wants more than anything? Is to live.
So do it. Live with her.
Raised in Mississippi, Marty Long moved “up north” fifteen years ago, according to her mother. North Carolina is home now, and she spends her time as a musician by recording, performing, writing, and working in DogwoodVu, the recording studio she and her husband built. Married to Kevin in 2006, Marty is also mama to stepdaughter Mallory (17) and sons Christopher (5) and Colin (3). She keeps dogs, chickens, and guppies, sews, writes, and works part-time with arts advocacy group, Arts North Carolina.
Image via iStockphoto