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How To Ask For Help When You Have Breast Cancer

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Any woman battling breast cancer is dealing with a variety of emotions and stress, including the fear that she's becoming a burden to her family and friends. Dr. Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, offers advice for women who may be struggling with how to accept or ask for help after a breast cancer diagnosis.

LISA: I'm Lisa Birnbach. Any woman battling breast cancer is dealing with a variety of emotions and stress including the fear that she's becoming a burden to her family and her friends. Dr. Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist who specializes in breast cancer issues at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York is here to help us through. Thank you for joining us Dr. Massie. How does a newly diagnosed patient with breast cancer not feel just overwhelmed with everything she has to do?

DR. MASSIE: I think most women who have just been diagnosed with breast cancer probably do feel overwhelmed with everything they have to do because they have to do a lot of things. In a short amount of time women hear that they have breast cancer, they hear a lot of information about various treatment options. They may want to interview doctors, different doctors, and then make a decision about an appropriate treatment option for themselves. And often time is of the essence.

LISA: How do you help people get throught it?

DR. MASSIE: Look around to see who can help us. And I think that we women realize that someone needs to pick the children up from school and meals need to be delivered to the home and the woman who has breast cancer is going to need some extra help while she starts learning about her illness and making decisions for herself.

LISA: Now alongside all these tasks could be tremendous fear: am I going to die? Is this going to shorten my life? Will I lose my hair? Will I lose my breast, et cetera, et cetera. How do you help patients manage their fear?

DR. MASSIE: Those fears are real and I think we all need to acknowledge when we have been given the diagnosis of what is potentially a life threatening illness. Of course we're wondering is this a treatment I'm going to get through. Is this an illness I'm going to get through? And if I complete my treatments how long will I be alive? But I think that doctors are happy to address those issues with patients today. Not so in the past. But we realize that those are the universal fears that everyone experiences.

LISA: Dr. Massie has there ever been a study of the power of the word cancer?

DR. MASSIE: I think that cancer was such a powerful word that forty years ago, we didn't use it.

LISA: Is that right?

DR. MASSIE: Doctors talked about lumps and bumps and masses, but women were often not told that they had breast cancer. They knew they had breast cancer, but the doctor was afraid that that word was so powerful that we simply couldn't talk about it. Fortunately times have changed right now.

LISA: Many women are uncomfortable asking other people for help. How do we ask our loved ones for help without feeling like we're burdens?

DR. MASSIE: Yeah I think that's a large problem that a lot of women have. Many of us are highly competent in our homes, highly competent as parents, so competent in our careers and our jobs and we're not really accustomed to having people help us. We're the helper people. So I think that what we remind people is this is a time in your life when people should be helping you and it's ok to ask for help. When your best friend says, I want to pick your children up from hockey practice every night and bring them home, what we say is, thank you! That would be very helpful.

LISA: Repeat after me: thank you that will be very helpful.


LISA: So don't let it cramp your self-esteem.

DR. MASSIE: And when someone says what may I do to help you, well I think sometimes people think, My goodness I have to think for you and for me? But I think that sometimes people really are saying I'd do better if you gave me a very specific job and then I can help in ways consistently during your treatment that will be of help to you.

LISA: So a loved one should be encouraged to say, be specific.

DR. MASSIE: Absolutely.

LISA: So I can help you better.

DR. MASSIE: Absolutely a loved one should be encouraged to be--to ask for specific instructions.

LISA: And if you're facing breast cancer you may be surprised to see which of your friends really stand up for you. Are really there for you.

DR. MASSIE: And some people are so pleasantly surprised to see how many people love them.

LISA: Yeah.

DR. MASSIE: How many people offer to help in a very significant way.

LISA: Thank you Dr. Massie. For more information please go to Susan G. Komen for the Cure at www.komen.org or call the Komen for the Cure helpline at 1-800-IM-AWARE. I'm Lisa Birnbach.

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