When women spoke about telling family and friends, they explained who they decided to talk to about the diagnosis, how and when. Most women also explained that it was difficult to tell others, especially children (please visit talking to children about cancer to read more about this), or other people who had experienced losses because of cancer and ageing parents. Julia and Debbra for example, found it too difficult to tell their parents and found someone else to do it for them. For Julia, it was difficult to tell others because it was part of admitting that it was real or as Kathryn said "I was telling it to people almost as to verify to myself that I had cancer."
Some women told the news to only a small number of people as they wanted to keep it private or they didn’t want others to know or speak about them. Some others, like Melissa, wanted to tell people personally.
Malika, who recently lost her mother because of breast cancer, decided not to tell her family in Morocco as she didn't want to hurt them. And Deann's husband didn't want to upset her mom but together they decided that they should tell her.
Women also described certain circumstances that influenced the moment to tell others about their diagnosis. For example, Naoual waited for her mother to come over from Morocco to tell her in person. Jeanette waited until her son finished his exams; Gaye wanted to wait until her son had returned from a long period of travel. Some women, especially in smaller communities, decided to tell their close family and their children soon after diagnosis as they were afraid that they might hear the news through other people.
Women told others the news of their breast cancer by phone, in person, in e-mails and also through social media using blogs, Facebook etc. Shelley started a family blog and was really happy with this approach and the responses they had. Margaret had planned a weekend out with her friends and was leaving the day she received her diagnosis; she appreciated the support from her friends. She found it relatively easy to tell people. Some women described wanting to deliver the message in a positive way without creating fear.
Women described undergoing personal changes in their relationships with others; they needed to learn to ask for, and receive, support from friends and family, and to find people they could trust. Some women described how their attitude affected others; they felt a need to be strong. Annie saw her father crying for the first time in her life. She also started speaking with her sister again because of her illness, and she is happy about that.
Other women explained how some friends and family stopped contacting them after learning about their illness. Ginette, for example, talked about how people can be afraid and that some people will stay away once they learn about your cancer diagnosis. Kathryn felt that people do not know how to deal with you, but also you don't know how to deal with them anymore at the beginning. Gaye didn't like people who felt sorry for her. She said "if you want to feel sorry for someone feel sorry for the children who have cancer and haven't had a life yet or the young mothers (with cancer)."
Many women also made new friends who had breast cancer. They appreciated the ability to share experiences and to have a common understanding of what it means. At the same time, it was difficult for them to lose friends with breast cancer who passed away. Debbra’s advice was to “ensure that you enclose yourself in a circle of people who are helpful for you and not zapping your energy.”
Please visit finding and sharing information to read more about shared experiences and support groups. And visit sexuality, femininity and intimacy to read more the effect on the relationship and sexuality.
Support from others
Women told us about the many different ways that they received support. For example, family and friends prepared meals, drove and accompanied them to appointments and picked up medications. Friends and family members called, visited, walked with them and just listened and spoke with them. Some of Nalie's family members shaved their heads together with her. Amanda’s partner is ‘ultra-positive’ and helps her to look at the best case scenario. Jocelyn received an anonymous grocery gift card for $100 and she loved receiving cards from well-wishers.
Some women spoke about the value of support from people far away, for example through contact with patients in other parts of the world with a similar experience.
The amount and types of support (formal and informal) varied greatly. Some women received a lot of support and others were a bit disappointed about the kind of support they received from friends or family. Donna mentioned how her family was facing several crises and her health issue took a back seat. Joanne cut out a couple of people in her life that were not supportive. Some women who didn't tell many people about their illness had less support as a result.
Women described how family and friends also struggled with the news, felt powerless, didn’t know how to help, went through hard times themselves, and did not have the same resources as the breast cancer patient.
Reactions in the community
Having cancer, along with changes in physical appearances, affected women's interactions with people when in the community. Jeanette experienced support from her costumers when she was bald and working. Lorna had an unpleasant experience in a research focus group where she felt that others were putting her down in saying that breast cancer was not that serious; she felt very hurt by that. When people said “You look so good” Melissa couldn’t help thinking that they were actually saying “You look so good for having had cancer.” Christa describes some painful situations: “I had some hard times too because I know that when I was looking at baby stuff and I was trying to be like as normal as possible... I would be looking at getting bottles and I got into a few discussions with people because I’d have to use formula (they would say) “Breast is best.” and all that kind of stuff.”
And Isla said: “We have to kind of understand that people might say some things that aren’t ideal, and you have to understand that and maybe just work to the education side of things at every chance you get, because people say some silly things.”
One extraordinary tale was told regarding community support. Amanda and her friends organized a fundraising activity they called "The Ultimate Egg Hunt" – to help finance Amanda's trip to another province around Easter weekend to get her eggs frozen before her chemotherapy. Over 300 people raised over $20,000 for treatment not covered by Medicare. Joanne experienced an outpouring of support with her breast cancer diagnosis but a lot less support when her son was diagnosed with a mental illness. She created a theatre show around this theme. Joanne was surprised that some women didn't want to say they had breast cancer while it's probably one of the best publicly supported illness. She said "Cancer really opened my mind to the differences in how I see the world and how other people see the world."