QUESTION: On Monday, May 21, my dearest friend is having a mastectomy. This will be her third attempt to stop the cancer. I will be staying with her the following weekend and would like to know what is the very best support I can give her emotionally, physically, spiritually. My mom died of breast cancer 27 years ago, and I keep remembering the horror of her pain.
ANSWER: I am sorry to hear of your friend's struggle with breast cancer, and to learn of your mother's battle with the disease. Your friend's situation is a painful reminder of losing your mom to this terrible illness. Hopefully sooner than later-with a lot of hard work-we can make this disease a thing of the past.
For right now, you have taken on the invaluable role of helping your friend deal with her upcoming mastectomy. It sounds like the doctors have recommended mastectomy to take care of the repeat recurrences in your friend's breast. You've already become familiar with how breast cancer can continue to cause problems in the breast itself. Local disease in the breast can be extensions of the original tumor or recurrence after the primary treatment. If the initial attempt to get a clear margin around the lesion is unsuccessful, we often try one or two more times to re-excise the area in an effort to preserve the breast. If we cannot obtain clear margins, then mastectomy is required. If we have saved the breast, and the disease recurs locally, then there may be the option of excising the recurrence and trying radiation or observation. Sometimes it can be difficult to control the local spread of breast cancer, and mastectomy may be the only option to try to remove all of the local disease. If your friend has a local recurrence following radiation, then mastectomy is the treatment of choice to try to prevent a future recurrence. Read more about mastectomy.
You are already supporting your friend in wonderful ways. The best support is just to be there, to listen, to be unconditional, to hold her hand, rub her back, go for a walk when she's ready. For you and for her, try not to transfer your mother's experience. Thank goodness, advances have been made. Less suffering and longer survival are more possible today. Your friend needs a safety net-just be there and love her.
—Anne Rosenberg, M.D.