How can I help my friend after a double mastectomy?
March 18, 2015 6:48 PM   Subscribe

My friend is having a double mastectomy/reconstruction next week after kicking cancer's arse. How can I help to support her physically and emotionally in the weeks afterwards?

My friend is an early-30's, married, mother of two kids under two, with a very supportive family. I have told her to let me know if she needs anything, but from previous experience people are reluctant to ask for anything in particular.

I've thought of getting her a gift certificate for meals delivered, and maybe delivering a couple of meals myself. Is there anything else I could possibly do? This is our group of friends' first experience with cancer, so any ideas would be helpful. Thank you.
posted by roshy to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I had a double mastectomy a bit over a year ago. It was elective, not cancer-related, so I hesitate to give too much emotional-support-related advice, but as a practical matter... for a week after surgery I wasn't supposed to shower (sponge baths only), and for a further week I wasn't supposed to lift my arms much so I couldn't wash my hair or even really my face, and I just. felt. grimy. all. over. Being clean again was a revelation. In my case, I went and got a 100% unnecessary super-fancy haircut just so someone would wash my hair for me and it was so glorious I still daydream about it, but depending on where your friend is with chemo that might not be relevant -- is she the sort of person who would be into a spa sort of thing, scrubs and face masks and whatnot?
posted by dorque at 7:18 PM on March 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are websites that can help organize groups of people to bring meals ( and other kinds of assistance ( You could talk to her family and see if they'd like to have dinners delivered, or if they'd like to have people help with laundry and grocery shopping and babysitting, and if she says yes you can help set it up using one of those sites.

In the States and Canada there is an organization that will pay for housecleaners to be sent to the houses of women who are undergoing treatment for cancer, but I'm guessing from your spelling you're not in North America? Just in case, it's

Also, you might get more requests for help if you ask her family/spouse -- they're the ones who are going to be organizing whatever needs to be done, probably, so they're the ones who know what can be outsourced.

It's kind of you to be looking out for your friend.
posted by feets at 8:39 PM on March 18, 2015

Best answer: Also, when people need food, 90% of what they receive is lasagna. Just saying so you can expand your palette in case you do bring food.
posted by feets at 8:40 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do you know if she's going to have chemo/radiation? When I had my bilateral mastectomy, it sort of started a holding pattern until chemo started. In fact, I saw recovery as just a means to get chemo rolling, so that's definitely coloring my memory. (Also I was in my mid-20s and had no kids, so take it as you will.)

Food from friends was nice, but not really what stuck with me. The biggest thing I appreciated was my friends coming by, just visiting for some time and filling me in on the world I was missing because I was laid up. I was off work for a couple of weeks, but even after the first week I started to go stir crazy. I really appreciated people who picked me up and took me to places where I could stroll, people watch, and sit (like Ikea).

So I would say food would be OK, maybe some nice tea or another treat. I appreciated hats and blankets as well, since I spent a lot of time lounging around. The best thing that stuck with me though, was my friends who just spent time with me and treated me like a normal person. I didn't think I was going to die or anything (breast cancer runs in the family), but some of my friends really freaked out and it got old fast. I wasn't an invalid and I didn't like people giving me those sad eyes and telling me how brave I was. I knew cancer was scary stuff for a lot of people, but their panic wasn't helping my recovery. I really surrounded myself with people who let me feel as normal as I could be. So if your friends can rally around her and give her a safe space to just be her without too much cancer stuff, that would probably help (if she wants it). And if she's going to have chemo/radiation this is going to be more important because it's a marathon.
posted by kendrak at 9:21 PM on March 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is there anyone at home with her? I had a double mastectomy (elective, not cancer) about two months ago, and I was pretty much not able to be alone for the first three days after surgery. I got a lot better quickly, but I was restricted from lifting anything (other than a fork to my mouth) and literally could not lift my arms above my head or wash my own hair in the sink. It gets a lot better after the first week or two, but it's still very unpleasant. I'm assuming her family has got this covered, but it can't hurt to offer to be the relief for them.

I was unable to work for a solid month, and got really bored and lonely. If you can take a day or two off once in a while, she would probably love to see you and get out of the house-- maybe see a movie or go to the zoo or out to lunch. She might also like rides to medical appointments, because driving herself might not be possible, and her family might need some help with scheduling that. You could offer to pick up prescriptions, do kid duty, laundry, or run random errands. Basically see what gaps their team needs filled in. Encourage her to eat-- you have to eat a little extra to heal up well, and pain meds killed my appetite. depression is a thing. It's a side effect of anesthesia and related to the complicated feelings people can have about their bodies plus being weak, in pain, and super bored. If you're up for it, she might need to talk.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:30 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would stay in touch with her regularly and as she needs certain types of support, step in to help with those things. If you keep an open line of communication going you'll know what she's struggling with and when, and hopefully how you can help.
posted by Avosunspin at 11:24 PM on March 18, 2015

Best answer: Don't wait for her to tell you what to do. Your friend has enough on her plate to manage, don't ask her to manage you too no matter how earnestly you mean it when you say, "Let me know what I can do." If you genuinely don't know what to do for her, ask her something specific like "Can I bring you some ice cream tonight?" or "Can I take your kids off your hands for a few hours on Saturday afternoon?" If she's not into your ideas, ask her to tell you what she needs: "Do you need to get out of the house? Where would you like me to take you?"

With a husband/family by her side, most of her frontline needs should be met, but you can offer some of the luxuries that her family might not think about. When I was going through chemo, one of my friends paid for his hairdresser to come to my house and take care of what was left of my hair. That was amazing, something I would have NEVER thought to do for myself, but made all the difference in how I was feeling.

My friends used lotsahelpinghands to coordinate rides to and from the hospital, to schedule visits and meals, and to sign up to come do my laundry and clean my house for me. One of my friends harrassed me relentlessly to update my Amazon wishlist and then made sure that the link was sent to anyone who wanted it. My favorite gifts were flowers and plants - things that were alive, bursting with color and life, lifted my spirits in a way like nothing else did - probably because that was the exact opposite of how I was feeling most of the time.

You are lovely for being there for her, and I'm sending lots of good juju into the universe tonight for both you and her.
posted by deliciae at 11:59 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She's got two babies! She will definitely need a whole lot of help, even if her husband or wife can take a few weeks off and he/she is a very hands-on dad or mom. Little kids do not understand when a parent suddenly cannot pick them up, cuddle them, feed them, bathe them, etc. Does she have enough family in the area who already know the kids and can help with all that? If she doesn't, the friends who are most familiar with these babies can be very helpful. Hiring a very-experienced nanny for a few weeks might help if family and friends cannot help with the kids.
posted by mareli at 5:52 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bring food (which is not lasagna, LOL; cookies, a green salad, and a chicken pot pie would be a gold-medal-class performance here), a potted plant (which lasts longer than flowers), and a DVD she hasn't seen before. While you are there, put in a load of laundry and/or do the dishes, or whatever work you feel comfortable doing. She will feel compelled to chat; ignore this, have her rest and watch the DVD while you work. When the DVD and you are done, and she is grateful, then sit down, comment on the plant you brought being so spring-y, and ask how she feels.

If the kids are around, then make the DVD be appropriate for them (she'll watch it, too), and put your attention on the little ones.

If the housework is all done, and the kids aren't around, then it's a social visit. If the spouse or other family is there then you can be social, too, and she'll probably just sink back and let it flow around her. But don't be surprised if she's not really up to idle chatter. As the first few weeks pass then social visits are easier, but the first few days you're really doing some corporal works of mercy and just keeping up the household's forward momentum.

You're awesome for being willing to help, but a 24K Good Friend for actually ringing the doorbell and showing up. It really means a lot.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:30 AM on March 19, 2015

Best answer: A couple of loose, comfy tops are going to be the only things she wears for a while, and she may not own any yet. (There are bandages and drains under there, and also a desire to be Not Seen for a while.) Microfleece is awesome this time of year, I imagine, but you should know her better…and also know better whether this is appropriate for your level of friendship. If it's not, drop a hint on the spouse or sister or whoever.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:33 AM on March 19, 2015

Best answer: In retrospect, what I should have asked for help with was faxing my medical paperwork and calling around to get paperwork sorted out. I had to fill out a bunch of forms and send in receipts and whatnot for billing, and it was way more difficult to do than it should have been because I was medicated and moving very slowly and carefully. I really should have asked someone to go to stand in line at the fax machine at FedEx for me, and I was worried about getting it taken care of that entire first week in between sleeping. So you can offer secretarial services, if that's of interest to her and the family.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:35 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everybody for your answers. They have all been incredibly informative. I especially appreciate the advice not to bring lasagna... as that was my plan! A chicken pie and chocolate cake should go down a treat. I'll also see what I can do to organise my schedule to spend some time with her, especially as time goes on.

The answers about concrete tasks are helpful. I will run chores past her husband as I think he will be more likely to accept help from other people. Speaking from experience, when I had some medical issues I was reluctant to accept any help offered, as I didn't want to be a burden. I'm sure her husband will have a different perspective.

Thanks again.
posted by roshy at 7:23 PM on March 25, 2015

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