If your friend, family member or loved one has incurable secondary breast cancer (also known as stage 4), it can be hard to know how best to support them.
We spoke to Kate, who has a secondary breast cancer diagnosis, and her friend David, about how they give each other strength to work through difficult times. And they give their five recommendations on how you can support someone with secondary breast cancer.
I was walking home one day and tripped on the curb, and ended up in A&E. The next day I was still struggling to balance after my fall, and while trying to stand up in the shower I noticed a lump in my breast, the size of a 5p coin.
I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right. In February 2015 I went to my hospital appointment, and they requested extra tests. The diagnosis came back – I had a 9cm tumour in my left breast and two 5cm tumours in my in lymph nodes. I had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare, fast-growing type of breast cancer, which I hadn’t even heard of.
The doctors had also found anomalies elsewhere. They found that the breast cancer had spread to my sternum and spine. It was treatable, but incurable.
I lost my husband, people think I’ve been through enough
When other people found out I have secondary breast cancer, their main reactions were shock, upset and sympathy. I lost my husband in 2012, and have a 12-year-old son who I raise as a single parent. They think, ‘You’re widowed, only 42, haven’t you been through enough?’
But I see it more as a process, something you have to get on with. I won’t become a crumpled heap in front of them, so they don’t need to feel sorry for me!
It’s a difficult thing to process
It’s hard for people to understand and hear about my diagnosis. But my friends and family who really support me have taken my lead on being practical and positive - they’re the ones who help me through the really tough times. It’s those people who on the bad days cheer me up and say: ‘Right, are we doing this or not?’
David understands my fears and frustration
We met at a work event nearly four years ago, he was a florist and I’m an event planner. We bonded over a love of showbiz and cabaret!
Then last year his husband messaged me to say he’d been in a head-on car crash. I told David I was there to support him. Anything he needed, I could be there. And he supports me in the exact same way.
David’s one of the only people who completely gets the implication of a secondary diagnosis, from an emotional point of view. He understands my fears, frustrations and apprehension.
He is invaluable to me.
Cancer has affected me in many ways, through people I’ve known throughout my life, but I’d never known someone with secondary breast cancer before I met Kate. As soon as we met our friendship blossomed. But her secondary diagnosis has nothing to do with who she is, Kate is Kate!
It’s important not to look at someone as their illness and what they can’t do, but to look at what they can do. I understand that some days are down days, like treatment days, and some are good days. I just promise that I’ll be there to support her in those tougher times.
Kate was my inspiration to recover
About 15 months ago, I was in a head-on car crash – I’m very lucky to be alive. Kate was there for me immediately, and was my inspiration to get better and get out of hospital. She was set to do a charity run with her ‘Angels’ 10 days later, and I’d promised her I’d be there at the finish line.
I made it, with my arm in a sling and a head injury. Seeing Kate cross over the finish line, with my husband and dog by my side, was incredibly emotional – I can still remember her reaction today.
You have to look beyond the exterior
I think I understand what’s going on underneath. I know when Kate feels hurt, anguish or worry, even if she’s hiding it beneath a smile. I can see right through her mask! I see it in her expression and body language, and hear it in her voice.
It’s about listening. Listening to Kate, hearing what she’s saying, I realise she’s talking with me, not to me. And she can do, because she knows that come rain or shine, I’ll be there.
If you’ve found out that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, Kate and David’s advice may help:
- Remember they’re still the same person.
- If they have something they want to say, let them. Talk with them, not at them.
- If you’re not sure how to talk about their diagnosis, ask them what they would prefer.
- Take their lead. If they’re being positive, do the same.
- Finally – remember that love is greater than death. Bear this in mind and you can support anyone.
We want everyone affected by secondary breast cancer to get the care and support they deserve. That's why we're campaigning for better care in hospitals, and providing invaluable support through our Helpline and Living with Secondary Breast Cancer meet-ups.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, wear your ribbon to raise awareness of secondary breast cancer and help us reach more people like Kate and David.