Cut it out with the pink ribbons.
While it's a nice idea to donate to large breast cancer organizations in a patient's honor, what most patients really need is money.
As you've probably gathered by the explosion of pink everything, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And, while many people try to spread awareness with the best of intentions, there isn't anyone left on this planet who hasn't heard of breast cancer. Breast cancer patients need many things, but sharing silly Facebook statuses and engaging in other click-it-and-forget-about-it forms of awareness isn't one of them.
Here are six things that you can do today to ACTUALLY help breast cancer patients.
1. Host a Community Fundraiser
If you know someone struggling with breast cancer, chances are that you know someone with a pile of medical bills, loss of job income, and increased food and gas costs. Having a chronic illness is expensive and breast cancer is no different.
While it's a nice idea to donate to large breast cancer organizations in a patient's honor, what most patients really need is money. Organizing a community fundraiser (such as hosting a spaghetti dinner at a local church or school, or convincing a restaurant to donate a portion of the proceeds from an evening's meals) puts money directly where it's most needed — with the patient.
2. Give the Gift of Time
One of the biggest challenges of having a chronic illness is balancing the life you had before vs. the life you've got now. Family and work obligations don't vanish simply because someone got sick, and it can be a struggle to keep up with basic household tasks while spending hours in hospitals and doctor's offices. Cancer treatments make patients feel exhausted and ill, and even driving home from a treatment can be nearly impossible. Offering your time to drive, cook, clean, or even babysit can be a lifesaver.
If you're too busy or far away yourself, or if your friend feels uncomfortable accepting help, you can always hire a cleaning service or send gift cards for groceries and gas instead.
3. Ask Before Offering Advice
When someone you love is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be tempting to offer unsolicited advice. And, while those cancer treatments you heard about on Dr. Oz might seem really important to share, the reality is that the patient and her doctor are the ones who should be researching and deciding on treatment plans.
Instead of leaping in with your story about how your brother's uncle's cousin was cured by juicing and essential oils, it's best to ask whether your friend is interested in hearing your information — and accepting whatever answer she gives.
4. Stop Talking About "Kicking Cancer's Ass"
It's common rhetoric that breast cancer is a "fight." And, indeed, this imagery resonates with many patients. However, many other patients resent the idea that they need to "kick cancer's ass" or "beat" cancer. After all, not all breast cancer patients go into remission, and if so, it is not because they didn't fight hard enough.
Characterizing cancer as a battle to be won implies that some patients are losers, and nothing could be further from the truth. Unless your friend chooses to use those words, try to offer support without turning her disease into a battle to be won or lost.
5. Don't Make it About You — But Take Care of Yourself, Too
There are a multitude of emotions that come with a friend or family member's breast cancer diagnosis. It can be hard to know how to process these emotions while still supporting your friend or family member, and it's even harder if you're used to relying on them for emotional support. Ultimately, however, their cancer is about them, not you.
This isn't to say that family and friends of breast cancer patients don't experience pain and stress. Rather, it's important to clearly delineate where your role begins and ends, and to seek out emotional support from appropriate sources. Other friends, family members, and even a good therapist can all offer much-needed emotional support while ensuring that you don't end up leaning on the patient instead. It's incredibly hard to watch your loved ones suffer, and you need to take care of yourself, too.
6. Donate to Patients, Not "Awareness"
Much could be said about the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its "pink-washing" awareness campaigns, but like it or not, it has become the face of breast cancer, and it's where the majority of breast cancer-related donations are made.
Unfortunately, the Komen Foundation does almost nothing for actual breast cancer patients. Another option for breast cancer donations are patient-focused organizations, such as Remember Betty, that provide direct financial assistance to breast cancer patients themselves. That's the kind of help that patients need, and it beats "pink-washing" any day.