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How to Support a Family Facing Breast Cancer

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Breast Cancer Awareness Month

You would have to be living under a rock for the last decade to not notice the massive pink takeover that happens during October. We can thank the Susan G. Komen Foundation for claiming pink as the color of breast cancer. And we can thank marketers everywhere for jumping on board and making pink EVERYTHING in an effort to show support of breast cancer.

For me, though, thoughts of breast cancer aren’t just relegated to the month of October. Breast cancer is something that has stayed at the back ofOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness Month my mind for the last 15 years. When I was 15 my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I distinctly remember the night my mom told my brother and me that she had found a lump in her breast and she would need more testing to see if it was cancer. At that moment we had no choice but to wait, pray and see what the rest of her tests would say. A few weeks later, after my parents had made trips to specialists in three cities, we knew. She had cancer.

To say that it was devastating might not be a strong enough word to describe how that news felt. My dad told my brother and me individually, and I remember breaking down in tears while my dad drove me home from my friend’s house. At 15, the thought of your mom dying is something that you aren’t equipped to handle. I guess it really never is. Would she make it to my high school graduation? My wedding? Would she ever be a grandmother?

I think a lot of people don’t realize that surviving a disease like cancer isn’t something that is just on the shoulders of the afflicted person. You survive cancer as a family. The fabric of your family’s tapestry changes, stretches, is strained. So how do you support a family who is dealing with cancer? As I think back on the summer that my mom was in treatment, a few things pop into my mind that can help ease the burden of a family facing cancer.

Do this…

    • Make the family a meal.
      It doesn’t have to be super fancy. Someone made us a Tater Tot casserole big enough to feed a family of ten. We’d never had it before and it was a casserole dish full of cheesy, starchy comfort food. You can’t go wrong with comfort food.


    • Hire someone to clean their house.
      I distinctly remember a few of my mom’s well-meaning friends coming over to clean the house while my mom was in treatment. And I remember feeling uncomfortable and like I didn’t fit into my own home. Having to explain to one of my mom’s acquaintances that yes, in fact, we do leave the Christmas doormat out all year seems silly now, but at the time it just made me angry. Mad at the situation, mad at my mom’s luck and annoyed that our home, which should have been our sanctuary, was being invaded. So if you feel so inclined, hire a cleaning service that can come in when the family isn’t home.


    • Offer tangible help with the kids – give rides to activities, plan and invite the kids to events that can help them feel normal.
      My brother and I survived that summer with the help of family friends who drove us to friend’s houses, included us in their family activities and were an extension of our family. Normalcy can mean the world to a family and especially children going through this. Having the freedom to not talk about cancer is a priceless gift.


    • Be the extra set of eyes/ears.
      To say that my parents were preoccupied during that summer would be an understatement. Because of where we lived, my mom had to have treatment out of town. That meant that for most of the week she was living in a big city where she could see an excellent oncologist and receive treatment at a state-of-the-art cancer center. This was the best choice for our family. When it comes to cancer treatment you don’t want to go with the discount chemo. However, with my dad working, this left my brother and me with plenty of time alone, unsupervised. In general, we were two very responsible kids, but I can’t say that the occasional check-in from family friends didn’t help. Phone calls from out-of-town family friends were also subtle reminders that people in the world knew what we were going through and were thinking of us.


Don’t do that…

    • Gossip about the family.
      This may have been a product of growing up in a small town or that I just tend to be sensitive, but I found that some people (and I’m talking adults here) really had no idea how to handle the news of my mom’s illness in any other way besides gossiping or being so upfront that it was hurtful. If you don’t know the family that well, the best thing is just to say, “How’s your mom?” That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t offer to help, don’t offer your own cancer story, don’t ask questions that are none of your business. Those questions would include details on someone’s treatment, their prognosis, if they’ve lost their hair, if they have had to have a mastectomy, etc. A cancer diagnosis might be public knowledge, but it’s still personal.


    • Don’t drop off a gallon of spaghetti sauce.
      Yes, this happened. No, it wasn’t helpful.


  • Assume that cancer is over with the last treatment.
    If you’ve never been through a disease like cancer, then it’s easy to think that once someone finishes the last chemo or radiation appointment that their battle is over. This is not the case. There are milestones – like the five-year cancer-free mark – that make cancer seem less scary, but every yearly check-up is a time when the family could use extra support. My mom is 15 years cancer-free and her annual summer check-up is still a nervous time for our family. Every year gets easier, but it is still tough.

15 years later my mom is breast cancer free. There have been scary times and years where the test results weren’t clear. A scare over uterine cancer and a major surgery. Tamoxifen. Emotional changes. Cancer is one of those things that changes a family forever, but we celebrate surviving together. If you’ve been through this then you know that there really is no other way to do it.

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About Jenny Petty

Jenny Petty
Jenny Petty is the co-founder of Reno Moms Blog. She grew up in rural Nevada and married frugal-outdoorsman-handyman Travis in 2010. They have a 3 year old son, Henry, and welcomed a sweet baby girl, Claire, last year. 40+ hours a week she works in digital marketing and when she isn't sleeping she likes to dabble in crafting, updating her blog Tales of a Durtty Home, reading anything not written by Dr. Seuss or Eric Carle, and pretending to be Martha Stewart (the one on TV, not the one that went to jail). At the top of her long list of loves is traveling, adventures, mojitos, horses, spa days, her baby boy's laugh and dates nights with her husband, Mr. Durtty.

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