Advanced Breast Cancer

The Role of a Caregiver

Caring for a loved one with advanced breast cancer presents different challenges from caring for someone with a curable disease. Advanced breast cancer becomes a permanent part of a person’s life, and your commitment, support and kindness can make this lifelong burden easier to bear.

  • Attend medical visits. It may be difficult to understand or remember all the information from the doctor. Two heads are better than one. Bring a list of questions to each medical visit, take notes and offer reminders later for follow-up items.
  • Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about advanced breast cancer. When you attend medical visits with your loved one, don’t be afraid to show you’ve done your research by asking questions. Make sure you understand the current status of the cancer and the treatment plan. The more informed you are, the better advocate you will be.
  • Get on the same page. People with breast cancer often refer to themselves as “survivors,” but people with advanced disease tend to feel very strongly about how they identify themselves, opting for alternatives such as “lifers,” “thrivers” or “metsters.” Talk with your loved one about which term you should use.
  • Be a traffic cop. Many people may want to visit. When you’re both up for it, act as the good host. But don’t be afraid to graciously turn away visitors when one or both of you needs to rest or just enjoy quiet time.
  • Make lists. Keep a list of questions about side effects, treatments, nutrition, exercise, etc., for the treatment team.
  • Be a thoughtful listener. Sometimes your loved one will want to talk about cancer. Don’t dismiss his or her feelings saying such things as “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s going to be fine.” Just listening is often a source of comfort.
  • Suggest support groups. Offer your loved one other outlets for support. No matter how close you are to your loved one, you are not experiencing the same things. Connecting with others who are dealing with the same fears, feelings and experiences can be a valuable experience for your loved one.
  • Take care of yourself. Caregiving is a mentally and physically exhausting responsibility, and you won’t be any good to your loved one if you aren’t good to yourself. Eat right, exercise and get enough sleep. Don’t ignore your favorite hobby, and don’t feel guilty when you enjoy yourself. Everyone deserves a diversion.
 

Strategies for the Male Caregiver

If you are a man caring for your partner with advanced breast cancer, you face a unique situation. To provide the best care you can, you may need to step outside some of the stereotypes that have defined your relationship up to this point.

  • Ask her how you can best help. Your loved one might prefer a hug, or she might be comforted seeing you take the lead with the kids. You are in this together, so make sure you’re helping her in the most constructive way possible.
  • Open up. Not a fan of talking about your relationship? Since your partner’s diagnosis, communication is much more than just talking about your relationship. It includes talking about her feelings, your feelings and anything else that is on your minds — cancer-related or not. Knowing you’re not bottling up your feelings will be a stress reliever for her, too.
  • Choose to be positive. You will definitely have ups and down during the course of your loved one’s disease and, at times, you may think it’s too overwhelming. Although you can’t always avoid setbacks, you can choose to adopt a positive and realistic attitude. Your genuine optimism may show your loved one a different, stronger side of you.
  • Vent your frustrations with a friend. Men often feel they need to “fix” everything, which means that your loved one’s advanced breast cancer diagnosis will really challenge you. You may feel angry, cheated and scared that you can’t fix this disease. You’re not the only one! Instead of letting those emotions get the best of you, let them out. Call a friend you’re comfortable with and get it out of your system. Or, ask a member of your loved one’s health care team for the name of a therapist or support group.
  • Take the sexuality out of the diagnosis. Your partner may be overwhelmed by fear that her body will look and react differently after treatment, but she may fear your reaction to these changes even more. Listen to her concerns. Assure her that her breasts, like her lungs or bones, are simply body parts affected by this disease. If this becomes an area of ongoing concern for either of you, don’t hesitate to ask your treatment team for guidance.
  • Be her biggest supporter. Your loved one will feel a range of emotions, but, no matter what, try to maintain a “glass half full” outlook. She’ll learn to count on you for your positivity and upbeat attitude, and that could be contagious.

Caregiving – Top 10 Ways to Help

What to do What to say How it helps
Communicate “I'd like to set up an email group or use social media to share your treatment updates with family and friends. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about how you’d like me to share the news and with whom you’d like me to share it."

Taking on this role relieves your loved one of having to repeat the same updates multiple times, and it ensures everyone hears a consistent message.

[Tip] Sharing this Top 10 Ways to Help list with friends and family members via your new communication channel will let others know how they can help.

Cook “Don’t plan anything for dinner on Wednesday because I’m cooking. What time can I drop off a fabulous home-cooked meal?”

Picking a specific day makes it harder for your loved one to refuse your offer. Not the best cook? That’s what delivery is for! Be sure to ask about special diet needs before planning your menu.

[Tip] Ask if there is a meal schedule or if you can create one to avoid duplication.

Organize “I bet you’re up to your ears in paperwork. ‘Organization’ is my middle name. Can I come by on Saturday to help you make sense of it all?” Bills, research, insurance correspondence and medical forms can be overwhelming. Your help will provide much-needed peace of mind.
Drive “Tuesday is my day off. Can I take you to an appointment or on errands?”  When kids are involved: “I’ve reorganized the carpool schedule, and I’m taking your week. Enjoy your week off!“ Schedules can be hard to coordinate. If you can, offer up an extended block of time. That way, you’re not rushed and your loved one won’t feel like he or she is taking advantage of your time.
Child care “Are you ready for a couple of hours of alone time? I’d like to take the kids to a movie on Saturday afternoon.” Your loved one can enjoy some downtime and conserve energy for really important moments. A change of pace is a good diversion for kids of all ages. Your activity doesn’t have to be costly — an afternoon at the park, in the library or at your house works just as well. If your loved one prefers not to be left alone, offer to come over and entertain the kids at home.
Pet care “Has your dog been to the dog park lately? I’d like to take him this weekend.”

Pets offer unconditional love, but they do feel the pain of neglect and stress, even when it’s unintentional.  If this pet doesn’t play well with others, skip the dog park and opt for a walk around the block or just some special attention at home. 

[Tip] Treats and toys are always a nice surprise!
 

Clean/do laundry “I’m going to swing by on Saturday morning to throw in some laundry for you. I think I’ll vacuum and do a quick bathroom cleaning while I’m there, so let me know if you’re running low on laundry detergent or cleaning supplies.” Clean clothes and a clean living space are important. And, when things are clean, everyone at home is more likely to feel refreshed.   

 

Outdoor chores “When I’m doing my yard work this weekend, I thought I’d do yours as well.” Mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges and shoveling the snow take a lot of energy. Your help lets your loved one conserve valuable energy and reduce anxiety about chores that may be too massive to attempt.
Shop “I’m making a grocery run. What can I pick up for you?” Shopping is stressful because it also entails getting dressed, driving or finding a ride, being in crowds and more. You’re already going to the store, so this is a no-brainer.  
Make plans “I miss spending time with you. Can I come over for a little bit this weekend and we can have tea, watch a movie or just chat?” Do or talk about something completely unrelated to your loved one’s illness. Everybody needs a break! 

Additional Resources

 



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