Advanced breast cancer is a difficult diagnosis to deal with.

It can also be very difficult for partners, family members and friends to deal with and some may find the diagnosis harder to accept than the person with the disease.

Family members and friends may find they are unable to cope with the emotions a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer brings and they may withdraw or they may not know what to say.

‘They just don’t know what to say or do’ is an excellent video, produced by the ABC Global Alliance as a guide for family and friends of those with advanced breast cancer. You can watch it here

If you're a partner, friend or family member of someone with advanced breast cancer, ask them what they need and what they want you to do. You may find some ideas on supporting someone with breast cancer here.

If you're providing care for someone with advanced breast cancer, then you also need to look after yourself. Below you'll find some information about:

  • Common feelings for those who care for someone with advanced breast cancer

  • Tips on how to help yourself

  • Tips on talking to children.

Common feelings for those supporting someone with advanced breast cancer:

  • shock and disbelief
  • frustration at not being able to solve the problem
  • loss of control - it's as though the cancer has taken over your lives
  • withdrawal / denial - a desire to ignore the illness or a refusal to acknowledge it
  • anxiety - about your future life, whether your wife/partner will be around in the future
  • concern for your children and their ability to cope
  • being overwhelmed by all you need to do both emotionally and practically, as your partner undergoes treatment
  • physical changes such as loss of appetite, insomnia, loss of energy
  • a fear of death.

All of these feelings and others are normal. Remember to acknowledge your feelings and try to talk about them. Bottling them up, withdrawing from the person with advanced breast cancer, or becoming stressed and anxious won't help them or you.

How you can help yourself

  • Get your own support network going - talk to friends, relatives, or others who are in a similar situation. You need an outlet for your own stresses and worries and it shouldn't be the person with advanced breast cancer.
  • If you don't have a friend to talk to, consider getting professional help. Talk to a counsellor or psychologist to help relieve your own anxieties.
  • Get help with practical chores, such as shopping, cooking and cleaning. If you are the partner to a person with advanced breast cancer, then many of these tasks will fall to you and if you are finding the burden too great, it's easier to get others to help or to pay someone to do these things for you.
  • Get a better understanding of advanced breast cancer. Make sure you know exactly what type of breast cancer your loved one has, understand the different treatment options, research side-effects and what can help. Having a comprehensive knowledge of the disease will help you to understand what your loved one is going through and will give you a greater sense of control.
  • Make time to do the things you used to enjoy together. Cancer doesn't have to define your life so create special times where you can enjoy each other, laugh, and live in the moment.
  • If you find you're really not coping and seem to be suffering from the symptoms of depression - insomnia, weight changes, lack of energy, inability to look forward to anything, a loss of desire to continue with life - seek professional help immediately. This is a difficult time and you may need medication or other help to get through.

Helping children

If you have children - be honest with them about what is going on. Don't pretend there's nothing wrong. It is better to be open with them and give them the information they need to understand what is going on.

You may find the following resources useful:

  • Read the talking to children section of the UK website MacMillan Cancer Support

  • The Cancer Society has a useful booklet Cancer in the family: Talking to your children.

  • CanTeen Aotearoa support young New Zealanders who are impacted by cancer. They work with young people aged 13-24 who are dealing with their own diagnosis, a parent or sibling's cancer or the death of a parent or sibling. Visit their website

  • The New Zealand organisation Skylight offers support to those sealing with change, grief or trauma.  They have a range of resources on talking to children about difficult illness, death and grief.

  • The American National Cancer Institute produces When your parent has cancer - a guide for teens which is a useful and interactive resource for teenagers. 

  • Contact BCAC member group Kenzie's Gift, an organisation that helps children who are either dealing with their own cancer diagnosis or that of a close family member.

For more information please visit our Family Support page.