From our PartnersHealth

Beyond the Meal Train

by J. Elizabeth Hersey

Years after their diagnosis, breast cancer survivors can benefit from emotional support.

Six and half years after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and told she had two years to live, Mori Fischer of Sausalito doesn’t need to hear any more friends’ advice about the disease. If you want to drop by for lunch, that’s a different story.

“The poor person who has cancer gets advice all the time from everyone, whether it’s their first year with it or sixth year, like me,” notes Fischer. “Don’t talk about your aunt who had it for 14 years and just died. I just want to know that you care, and you don’t have to come over with a four-course meal — just come over for a tuna fish sandwich.”

An estimated 281,550 women across the United States will receive a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer in 2021, according to the American Cancer Society. When they begin the typical treatment of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, their friends and family members are likely to organize meal deliveries, offer drives to appointments, help with child care and provide other tangible assistance. But once the helping hands have stopped, breast cancer survivors can still use listening ears.

Dr. Karen Horton, a San Francisco plastic surgeon in private practice since 2006, often sees patients whose original breast reconstruction surgeries were a decade or more ago and now need a revision to restore a positive body image.

“They still need support, but it’s more mental and emotional support,” Horton says. “I tell them it’s going to literally and figuratively reopen up old wounds. They are going to be reliving a lot of the emotions that they had when they originally had breast cancer. If they’re not prepared for that, it can really throw them for a loop.”

Horton says she encourages patients to bring one or two members of their support team with them. “I always ask when I meet a new patient, ‘Who do you live with, who’s in your circle?’ When you have a revision, you need to keep those people really close. … Getting a woman through a breast cancer revision takes a village, and there are so many people who can help out in concrete or abstract ways.”

Sallie Huntting, most recently chief development officer for the reorganized San Francisco Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, has recommended to friends in various stages of breast cancer recovery that they explore “continuing survival” programs at Bay Area breast centers, such as the Art for Recovery workshops and meditation and guided imagery classes at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Care Center. Still, “the most important thing you can do as a friend is listen,” Huntting said. “Listen to their concerns.”

Those concerns may include not being identified solely by their cancer. “I want people to look at me as Mori — not Mori the girl with breast cancer, not the girl we have to feel sorry for,” Fischer says. “If you care about your friend who is ill, don’t treat her as a sick person. Treat her as your friend.”

For those looking for more information, Susan G. Komen remains active in the San Francisco Bay Area under the leadership of new Executive Director Jenifer Weiss. “We continue our mission to raise funds for breast cancer research and to provide assistance to those facing the disease,” says Joanne Horning, founder and former CEO of Susan G. Komen, San Francisco Bay Area. “The San Francisco Affiliate recently raised over $200,000 from our More Than Pink Walk, and we have several upcoming events scheduled in the new year.”

komen.org/sanfrancisco; 415-592-5910; Helpline: 1-877-GO-KOMEN

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