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Surviving Breast Cancer: Advice From a Doctor-Turned-Patient

Women's Health: Must-read guide for women from a doctor and cancer survivor

Women's Health Advice: Here's a must-read guide from a doctor and breast cancer survivor for women facing a cancer diagnosis or any medical crisis

Women, especially busy mothers and grandmothers who are used to doing everything for everyone else, must learn to ask for help.We are not good at it and we must learn to be. When a health crisis hits, we need help. Period. Here is excellent advice from a mother who is also a doctor and breast cancer survivor who learned how to ask for - and get - the help she needed to survive and thrive.

This is the second in a two-part series of posts offering advice on how women can and must – ask for and get – support during and after a medical crisis. This advice was written by a doctor who is also a mother and breast cancer survivor. She offers this wisdom from a unique position and I share it with you because it is essential information we should all have.

This woman's diagnosis was breast cancer, but her advice (as a doctor, patient and mother) applies brilliantly to any medical condition or diagnosis any of us has received or may get in the future. This is me, as a teacher, connecting us all with a great resource. I want us all to be armed to advocate for ourselves, come what may.

Read Part I here: Best Women's Health Advice From a Doctor Who Was a Patient (Part 1)


Here is Part 2:

"Many cancer centers and hospitals have small foundations or grants to help support women undergoing breast cancer treatment — such as funds for babysitting, housecleaning, massages, and even acupuncture. If your friend is overwhelmed, you can contact the cancer center and ask if there are any funded support services.

After of my breast cancer sisters agreed that while the meals, visits from close friends, personal notes, and childcare were most helpful, here are some other gifts that we all appreciated:

1.     Chemo bag: a cute tote filled with pens, crossword puzzles, thank you notes, hand/foot cream (as chemo dries out skin), a good book, magazines, and some hard candies.

2.     Having a bunch of people go in for an ipod shuffle and fill it with their favorite songs.

3.     A crockpot.

4.     Magazine subscriptions — as there is a lot of time in waiting rooms. Favorites were Vanity Fair, People, The New Yorker, andUs.

5.     A subscription to Cooking Light — as we are told that a low fat diet is associated with better survival.

6.     Specific books: Crazy, Sexy, Cancer by Kris Carr; The Anti-Cancer Book by David Servan-Schreiber


In terms of emotional support, here are some key points:

1.     Allow your friend to guide the discussion and unless you are a doctor or have personally lived through breast cancer, do NOT ask questions about how she found it, treatment specifics, and specifics such as stage and prognosis. Breast cancer treatment is pretty horrific; you just need to march through it and get to the end. I personally, did not want to relieve the horror of finding it every time someone asked me, "so, did you find a lump?" I also found that people often wanted to know the details to reassure themselves that it could not happen to them. So many people asked me "do you have the breast cancer gene?" at a point where it really didn't matter as I was getting the full treatment gene or no gene. Breast cancer treatment is fortunately rapidly improving, and is very different depending on which type of cancer you have, as is prognosis. It takes a lot of energy to explain all of this and a lot of time.

2.     NEVER ask about it in front of that person's children. I know that people mean well, and that they are trying to show you that they relate and care, but I was shocked about how many people asked me questions about my treatment and prognosis in front of my 4 and 6 year old sons (who would later that night without fail have nightmares about not being able to find me). And be careful about what you say in front of your children as well.

3.     NEVER, EVER tell them cancer stories about people who die. Again, people think that they are relating, but saying stuff like "oh, my husband's sister died of breast cancer in her 30s" does not help.

4.     Be careful of comparisons. Everyone's cancer is different. It is different on a molecular level and on an emotional level. Someone with a small, very curable type of breast cancer who has little social support or other stresses can be completely devastated by her experience, while other women with more advanced cancers and huge support networks can actually feel that their lives are enriched by the experience.

5.     Other than "you look great" try to avoid breast-related comments. A double mastectomy with implant reconstruction is NOT the same as a breast enhancement surgery. It does not look the same. In fact, most breast surgery looks a little weird in the nude. And I think that a 100% would agree that they would prefer their old, saggy, flat breasts to being bald and scared for their lives. I am almost 3 years out, and the other day someone asked me "Don't you just love your new breasts?" I looked at her like she had two heads — because no, I would rather not have cancer.


Again, be positive! It is not easy being a good friend to someone going through this. You want to treat this person as your same friend, while at the same time acknowledging what they are going through. Cancer is all consuming during treatment and you will have times when you just miss your friend. I also think that it is really important to figure out how not to over-extend yourself and then feel resentful. I still feel guilty that my cancer not only took over my life, but my best friend's life as well. She has never complained about it—but for a while I felt very indebted to her. Now, I just feel gratitude and hope that I am just as good of a friend to her.

My core group of girlfriends went above and beyond basic support — it was such a long process and they never tired of checking in on me, flying out to visit, sending care packages, and telling me that I looked good when I was a scary mess. The best was doing the 2-day Avon Walk with me; it was an incredible experience, and I was so touched to have such an amazing group of women by my side."

Get more great women's health advice here:

Best Women's Health Advice From a Doctor Who Was a Patient (Part 1)

Best Women's Health Advice: What I wish I'd known before treatment

Best Mother's Day Gift? Help Mothers Take Care of Our Health - Give her a Mommagram

Medical Errors: ER Doctor Felt 'Helpless' As His Mother Died

Aging and Anorexia Part II: Advice on Eating Disorders in Midlife and Beyond

Anorexia and Aging: Is There a Silent Crisis of Eating Disorders in Older Women?

Mean Girls: Is Your Mother Being Bullied in Assisted Living?

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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