By Liz Welch, Photos by John Dolan
Five survivors tell how to help someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
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The Breast Cancer Survivors:
- Laura Livingston Rubin
- Lizanne Kelley
- Beth Weinblatt
- Cathy Scheibe
- Angela Agbasi
Give a Gift to the Person, Not the "Cancer Victim"
From the moment a woman is diagnosed, cancer takes over her life, so a gift that addresses who she was before the diagnosis as well as what she's going through is always appreciated. Laura Livingston Rubin, 34, a New York City-based publicist, invited her friends to a party right before she began her chemotherapy and was bowled over when a friend presented her with six American Express gift cards, totaling $3,500. "All my friends chipped in," says Laura. "Each had a message, like 'Keep kicking ass!' or 'You're still hot!' When I was feeling blue, I could treat myself to something frivolous―a pedicure, a new dress, organic tomatoes. It lifted my spirits."
Related: The Facts About Breast Cancer
A self-help book on beating cancer may seem like a thoughtful gift, but it's better left on the shelf. "Those are things you need to choose yourself," says Cathy Scheibe, 67, a magazine publisher in LaMoure, North Dakota.
Let Her Have Dark Days
While breast cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence―in fact, about 85 percent of those who receive an early diagnosis survive―many patients still wonder, Why me? and have periods of self-pity. "I went through many 'This just sucks!' moments," says Beth Weinblatt, 35, a legal assistant in Bedminster, New Jersey, whose mother, grandmother, and aunt all had breast cancer. (Her mother, diagnosed when Beth was four years old, is a 31-year survivor.) When Beth was feeling low, friends who cheerfully insisted that she was going to "beat the disease" actually made her feel worse. "I really appreciated those friends who let me sulk," she says.
Related: What Not to Do or Say to a Breast Cancer Patient
"Sometimes having down days means a need for some privacy," says Lizanne Kelley, 49, a marketing director and a single mother in Fort Lauderdale. Although friends rallied around her during her treatment, they also gave her the space to process things at her own speed. "They'd call and check up on me," says Lizanne, "but no one pushed me for details, and I appreciated that enormously."
Whether they're going in for a needle-biopsy appointment or chemotherapy, many patients say that having someone to sort out transportation is a godsend. Chemotherapy can be exhausting; sometimes it's all a patient can do to get out of bed, much less get behind the wheel. Even though Laura's best friend was living abroad, she arranged for a car service to take Laura to and from each chemo session. "The driver picked me up and waited until I was done," she says. "The thought of trying to hail a cab, let alone take the subway, was beyond me. Between the chemo and the antianxiety and antinausea drugs, you're slightly out of your gourd."
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The arrangement resulted in an unexpected bond. Throughout the four months Laura was being shuttled back and forth, she became close with Kazi, her driver, who is Muslim. "He told me he prayed for me at his mosque, which I found tremendously comforting," says Laura.
Take a Memo
When a doctor announces that you have breast cancer, it's hard to hear much else. Your mind starts spinning so fast that everything can sound like gibberish. For this reason, Laura says, having her sister-in-law Karolann accompany her to every doctor's appointment was invaluable. "She brought an orange silk-covered notebook with her and filled it with doctors' names, fax numbers, and insurance forms," says Laura. "You're dealing with oncologists, radiologists, gynecologists, surgeons. To have all that information in one place was genius."
Since Cathy's four children are scattered across the country, from New York to Oregon, she was particularly relieved when her colleague Janelle offered to accompany her to doctor's meetings.
"I was so emotionally involved, I could not even hear straight, let alone remember everything," she says. "Janelle took notes that I could reference later, when my head was clear." And sometimes patients need more than just a note taker―they need an advocate. When Amy, Cathy's 43-year-old daughter in New York City, heard that her mother was going to have to wait eight weeks for an operation in Fargo, North Dakota, she found a specialist elsewhere who could do the surgery sooner.
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