What would you do if someone you were close with was ever diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer (mBC)? An mBC diagnosis — which is where breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body — can mean very different things for different patients, and even though there’s no cure, several different treatments are available to slow the cancer’s progress.
We spoke to two Canadian women who have mBC, Mei-Lin Yee and Krista Dumas, to get their first-hand advice on what you can do (and things you shouldn’t do) to help a loved one with the disease. Here’s what they had to say:
When it comes to an mBC diagnosis, subtype makes all the difference. Know your friend or loved one’s subtype so that you can better understand what they’re facing in terms of treatments and longevity.
“At first it was very difficult for my family and it was very frustrating for me because I felt that they were in denial as much as I was,” said Mei-Lin. “It was as if they also didn’t understand what the metastatic aspect meant.”
Check your sources
“You have to make sure you know that where you’re getting your information from is evidenced-based and reputable and that’s where organizations like The Canadian Breast Cancer Network come in,” Krista urged. “There’s so much information online, it’s a huge puzzle. You have to make sure the energy you’re spending informing yourself is spent on resources that won’t steer you in the wrong direction.”
Ask the right questions
Don’t ask a person with mBC to try treatments that have worked for someone with another type of breast cancer — they’re very different, and having to explain that over and over is exhausting and emotionally draining.
“So many of the treatments that are available for women with breast cancer were not applicable to me,” said Mei-Lin. “I began to see myself going down this tunnel that seemed to be getting darker and darker and narrower and narrower.”
Turn to the toolkit
Krista explained that “The Canadian Breast Cancer Network and the tools they’ve developed are really helpful to get women on the path to understanding their receptor status. That gives you an understanding of what you might be able to expect from your treatment. Because I know my receptor status, I know about other treatments in development.”
Advocate for their health
Asking the right questions to healthcare professionals can make all the difference, but when you’re overwhelmed by news of a serious diagnosis, it’s difficult to do. Support a friend or family member by knowing the important questions to ask and help them advocate for the best treatment available.
Be there now (and also a year from now)
Mei-Lin explained that it’s crucial to keep things consistent: “When many of us got our diagnosis, friends and family were there, bringing homemade meals and offering to drive us to treatment. Their understanding is that this is going to be something that is short term. It’s important to understand that any type of support that you do offer is going to be needed for years to come,” she said.
“It’s important for people to actively be listening and ensure that they truly understand the metastatic environment before they start giving words of support,” said Mei-Lin. “It is so frustrating for those of us who live with metastatic breast cancer because we feel as though our situation is not really understood. It’s important for people around us to understand our situation. Saying things like ‘You’ll get through this’ is not really the type of support that can be offered in our situation.”
“When you’re first diagnosed, you really don’t know what you need,” Krista explained. “For people around someone with cancer, they have to understand that sometimes what we need is someone to pick you up and tell you to be brave. And sometimes that’s the last thing you need. It’s really important not to judge the patient. When you’re the patient, sometimes you have to think those awful things and do what you can to mitigate whatever bothers you about them. It doesn’t mean that the patient is wrong, or that they’re not being positive or hopeful. It just means that they’re processing what they’re going through.”
Look for new opportunities
Keep an eye out for news about mBC research, new treatments and clinical trials.
“The cancer world is a changing world,” explained Mei-Lin, “there is all kinds of research and development going on out there and we can’t be a one-man show. We need to have our family and support system actively looking at what’s coming down the pipeline and what we might be eligible for in terms of clinical trials. If they understand our diagnosis, then all the better. They can be more effective in helping us.”
Make more memories
“Don’t let the cancer diagnosis take away from you more than it already has,” Mei-Lin said. “Live life, regardless of the diagnosis. We still have many wonderful memories ahead of us.”