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How To Talk To Friends About Your Breast Cancer

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Talking with friends and family about your breast cancer diagnosis can present some unique challenges. Dr. Mary Jane Massie, Attending Psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, offers some advice for women battling the disease and those who support them.

LISA: I'm Lisa Birnbach. If you or someone you love is battling breast cancer, how do you talk about it with your friends, loved ones, colleagues at work? Joining me to guide us through this tricky landscape is Dr. Mary Jane Massie, psychiatrist who specializes in breast cancer issues at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Dr. Massie how do you deal with a friend who will not talk to you about your disease?

DR. MASSIE: I think that's heartbreaking when that occurs. I think the woman who has breast cancer needs all the support she can get from the people who really love her. But I think most women understand that when people walk away from us when we're sick, it probably says something about how much difficulty our friend is having knowing what to say to us. It may be related to how much difficulty she's having talking with us because she's helped other people, perhaps her mother, perhaps a sister deal with the same illness. And the thoughts and memories she's having are just overwhelming to her.

LISA: How do you deal with friends who then disapprove of the course you've chosen to deal with your breast cancer?

DR. MASSIE: I think that what we warn people is that friends are well-meaning. They do love us, but they're probably not as well informed about treatment options as we are once we've had a chance to talk with our doctors. They're not us and so what our friend might pick for herself may not be really the direction of treatment that we would select for ourselves. I think our friends who bring books, who bring articles, who want us to see other doctors, different facilites, they mean very very well. But I think that we have to select our own treatment team, we have to find people we're comfortable working with. We have to find people we feel are giving us information that is most useful to us. And we really must make our own decisions.

LISA: If you think a friend is a bummer, do you recommend sort of leaving them out of the loop for a while?

DR. MASSIE: I think that sometimes when we're ill and when we're not ill we make decisions about advice that we want to hear. Yes I think that if a friend is consistently not helpful that it's perfectly fine when we're sick to let that relationship rest a little bit.

LISA: That's a nice way to put it. But I guess with kids you want to protect them from being too terrified about the outcome and that Mommy's still going to be around and that Mommy's not going to die from this disease.

DR. MASSIE:I think that women with children do a terrific job talking with their doctors, talking with all of the mental health support staff available about how to best inform children of different ages in developmentally appropriate language about what's wrong with mom.

LISA: Mm-hmm.

DR. MASSIE: So what we tell our three year old, what we tell our thirteen year old, and what we tell our twenty three year old are very different pieces of information.

LISA: At work, do you recommend that women with breast cancer inform their colleagues when they are diagnosed? Is this something to keep a secret until it's unkeepable?

DR. MASSIE: Women have very different approaches. Some women make the decision appropriately for them. Their health issues are their private issues. They may talk with their human resources department. They may tell their immediate boss that they have an illness, that they have cancer, that they have breast cancer and they're going to be absent from work for treatment, for surgeries, for follow up visits. But they choose not to tell the people they relate with regularly because they're concerned that they are going to just talk about my cancer and I don't want to do that at work. I want to go to work to work. Other people are very open about aspects of their life with most people they work with. And so a lot of women quite naturally will tell the entire workplace and gain tremendous emotional support. If you tell, you have a chance to get support.

LISA: Right, right, thank you so much Dr. Massie.

DR. MASSIE: You're welcome.

LISA: 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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