How to Support Someone Newly Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

Erin Hazelton is a freelance writer and women’s health advocate. Formerly a fashion and beauty writer, Erin’s career changed paths after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Since then, her main objective has been educating women about the nuances of breast cancer and encouraging resilience in the face of adversity.

You are in shock. Your spouse/sister/friend/girlfriend/mother/daughter/cousin/colleague has been newly diagnosed with breast cancer. You can’t imagine what’s going through her mind. You are gutted and you want to help… But how?

The good (and bad!) part is that many of us at Stage have been through breast cancer. We experienced the shock, the sadness, the sickness, and even the triumph of navigating cancer. We’ve also been the beneficiaries of plenty of wonderful and not-so-wonderful “help” from friends and family.  

When you get your diagnosis, you are “triggered,” which means if someone says or does something that triggers you further, you’ll probably snap, even if that person offering “advice” just meant to be helpful. Getting cancer is a lot. Like a lot a lot. 

For me, the most helpful thing initially was for the people in my life to give me the space I needed to process. I did not want to be bombarded with questions. I did not want to hear how sad everyone was for me or about their grandmother who survived breast cancer twice. When younger women get cancer, they don’t want to be compared to older people who’ve had cancer. It’s not fair. All we think about is how much “better” it would have been if we got another twenty or thirty years of life before going through this crap. 

We think all kinds of things, which is why I, personally, wanted to be left alone initially. I needed to sort myself out before receiving any additional input from non-doctor sources. This is why I told my husband and mother to tell who they needed to and ask them not to call me. I told only my closest friends. At some point, I knew I would be ready to talk more openly about it, but I know me, and that wasn’t going to be while I was processing the worst news of my life. 

Aside from giving me space, the things I appreciated most were the flowers that came with simple, personal notes. You know your breast cancer person best: if you aren’t formal with them, don’t send them a funeral-formal note. Simply write: Wasn’t expecting this news. What a crock of sh*t. I’m here and I know your strength. Don’t treat them differently. We are still the same person we’ve always been, we just happened to get cancer. 

Beyond that, know your audience and know your skill set. If your person is very close to you, offer to go to appointments with them. If you are a good cook, make them a meal. If you are well-connected and know a great resource for them, share that resource. If you are an excellent gift-giver, make them a care basket.

We are all different and deal with cancer differently. This was my experience. Here are a few tips from other Stage survivors:


When I was first diagnosed, I found comfort in sharing with immediate family and a small handful of friends. I needed people that had been in my life for years to know what was going on with me. 

I was scared and having those OGs check in on me regularly for updates kept me going. The flowers, texts, cards, homemade meals, and gift baskets made me feel loved. Friends and family offered to attend doctor’s appointments and that made all the difference— some even traveled from out of town to join me. These appointments are nerve-wracking and having someone else hear the info helped me keep it all straight… and sometimes made it easier for others in my life to accept what was happening.  

What was NOT helpful were the unsolicited stories from neighbors, relatives, and friends of friends who had “horror” stories. Patients want to hear positive stories of women getting through it easily or going on to do great things after, having families, etc. Resist the temptation to discuss breast cancer in a social setting. The person dealing with it most likely just wants to feel normal… and probably doesn’t want to talk about it in front of everyone. Speak privately and don’t share her diagnosis with others without her permission.

And while connecting the patient to other women that have gone through it can help, it's most helpful to find someone with a similar diagnosis, stage, and treatment plan. You don’t want to overwhelm her with information that may not be relevant to her diagnosis. 

If you’re close, stop by and see her in person. Offer to watch movies and arrange other distractions to take her mind off her diagnosis. And by all means, give her a huge HUG—like a lot of them!  


Like Erin, I also needed emotional space. If I felt like talking about how much everything sucked, what I was going through, or how I felt, I wanted to be the one to initiate it. It was hard when people close to me got sad or upset because I felt like I was the cause of it and that made me feel worse and more depressed and scared about my situation. Same thing with receiving unsolicited “helpful” advice... Please, just don’t do it!

One thing I appreciated most was having meals set up and delivered, whether they were homemade or from a restaurant I liked. Grubhub gift cards were also very much appreciated! 

When I was up for it, if it was a close friend or family member who brought the food to me, I loved having them stay to eat with me. That little bit of company and normalcy was nice, as was setting up times to go on walks together.

I know that people meant well-sending books on cooking for cancer, or sending stories by people who survived (or did not survive) cancer, or articles about how to stay positive through adversity, etc., but those actually had the opposite effect intended. That said, getting little notes and cards of encouragement in the mail was helpful because I could look at them when I felt down and feel the energy of love, encouragement, and support around me. Ooh – and little care packages with things like yummy, soft, luxurious lotion or lip balm and soft slippers were the best!

There many things you can do to support your friend or family member while they are going through this unimaginable time, but the best thing you can do is to listen and be present. Give space if you are asked, but still check in sporadically, or regularly, you know that person best. If they’ve been quiet for a while, send them a text, an email, or leave a voice message.

Letting them know you are there no matter what is sometimes all a person needs. Listen to them, even when they aren’t speaking. If they really need something, or just a shoulder to cry on, they’ll reach out and open up… because they’ll know you are there, and that you truly care.


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