Emotional support

Women react in different ways when they learn they have breast cancer. Feelings can be muddled and change quickly. This is quite normal and there is no right or wrong way to feel.

Some women may have particular concerns–they may be worried about the change in their appearance after surgery and how it will affect their lives and relationships. Younger women may be worried about fertility, pregnancy, and breast feeding following treatment (this should be discussed with your specialist). Other women may feel that they are not getting enough personal support to help them deal with their illness.

A family walking together

It may be helpful to talk about your feelings with your partner, family members; friends; or with a breast care nurse; your local Cancer Society; counsellor; social worker; psychologist; or your religious/spiritual adviser. Talking to other women with breast cancer may also help.

Sometimes, you may find your friends and family do not know what to say to you: they may have difficulty with their feelings as well. Some people may feel so uncomfortable they avoid you. They may expect you to lead the way and tell them what you need. You may prefer to ask a close family member or friend to talk to other people for you.

Anyone you tell needs time to take it in and to come back with his or her questions and fears–just like you. You can help them to adjust, just as they can help you. But remember that while you are having treatment your needs should come first. If you do not feel like talking, or you cannot cope with any more visitors, say so. If there are practical things they can do to help–let them know. Some friends are better at doing something practical to help than they are at sitting and talking. Everyone is different, and some may find it so difficult that they stop visiting for a while.

Breast cancer and its modern treatment is a huge life journey.

You may be shocked about your cancer diagnosis and you may worry about the time it is taking to decide on treatment. This is because your oncologist cannot give you detailed advice about your best choices until the pathologist has reported on your lump or breast tissue, the lymph glands, and hormone receptors.

Your oncologist’s advice about which treatment is best for you is based on the size of the cancer; how abnormal it is (its grade); whether it has been completely removed; whether the lymph nodes have cancer in them or not (and if so, how many lymph nodes were involved); whether the cancer had oestrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR) receptors; and whether the HER2 receptor is positive.

That visit to discuss the pathology report is a huge step, and we suggest you take along a person to support you. Many women cope well with the first part of chemotherapy, but the length of the programme means that by the end of chemotherapy, many women are tired.

It is often when the treatment is finished that the full impact of the breast cancer diagnosis, and its treatment, ‘hits home’. Many women feel vulnerable at this time. The family and friends may have ‘moved on’, but you may feel differently.

There may be an impact on relationships, sexuality, and the ability to work. This ‘vulnerable phase’ may last 6 to 12 months. The first mammogram is often ‘a hurdle’ as is the anniversary date of the diagnosis.

Your oncology team understands the impact of this journey and can help more if you are open and tell them of your emotional and coping concerns. For details of additional support services available, phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Talking with your children

How much you tell children will depend on how old they are. Young children need to know that your illness is not their fault. They also need to know that you may have to go into hospital. Slightly older children can probably understand a simple explanation of what is wrong. Adolescent children can understand much more. All children need to know what will happen to them while you are in hospital, who will look after them, and how their daily life will be affected.

Sometimes, children rebel or become quiet. Keep an eye on them or get someone else to, and get help if you need it; for example, from the school, a counsellor or a hospital social worker.

The Cancer Society has a booklet, Cancer in the Family, written to support parents and carers in the difficult task of talking with your child or children about cancer. To get a copy of this booklet, contact your local Cancer Society, phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) or download it from our website.

Cancer Society Volunteering, Information, and Supportive Care Services

Your local Cancer Society provides confidential information and support.

The Cancer Information Helpline is a Cancer Society service where you can talk about your concerns and needs with trained nurses. Call your local Cancer Society and speak to supportive care services staff or phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Local Cancer Society centres offer a range of support services for people with breast cancer and their families. These may include:

  • volunteer drivers providing transport to treatment

  • accommodation

  • support and education groups

  • contact with other women who have had breast cancer

  • the Look Good...Feel Better workshop. Contact your local Cancer Society about attending this workshop.

A family sharing a picnic

You may be interested in Cancer Connect NZ, which arranges telephone peer support calls for people living with cancer and their caregivers. For more information call the Cancer Information Helpline (0800 CANCER (226 237). Cancer Chat is an online/support and information forum.

The range of services offered differs in each region so contact your local centre to find out what is available in your area. If you are having treatment at a private hospital ask your treatment team what services you may be eligible for.

“The Helpline nurse was great. I rang and said ‘Help! I can’t do this on my own.’” Arthurette

Cancer support groups

Cancer support groups offer support and information to people with cancer and their families. It can help to talk to others who have gone through the same experience. Support groups can also offer many practical suggestions and ways of coping. Ask your hospital or local Cancer Society for information on cancer support groups in your area.

Breast care nurses

A breast care nurse may be available in your hospital to provide specialist support and guidance.

Financial assistance

Help may be available for transport and accommodation costs if you need to travel some distance to your medical and treatment appointments. Your treatment centre or local Cancer Society can advise you about what sort of help is available.

Financial help may be available through your local Work and Income office. Work and Income has pamphlets and information about financial assistance for people who are unable to work. Short-term financial help is available through the Sickness Benefit and longer-term help is provided through the Invalids Benefit. Extra help may be available; for example, accommodation supplements and assistance with medical bills.

More information is available on the Ministry of Social Development’s website or by phoning 0800 559 009.

Home care

Nursing care is available at home through district nursing or your local hospital. Your doctor or hospital can arrange this.

You may be entitled to assistance with household tasks during your treatment. For information on what help is available, contact your hospital social worker or the District Nursing Service at your local hospital.

Interpreting services

New Zealand’s Health and Disability Code states that everyone has the right to have an interpreter present during a medical consultation. Family or friends may assist if you and your doctor do not speak the same language, but you can also ask your doctor to provide an interpreter if using family members is inappropriate or not possible.