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Celebrating Three Years (and Ways to Help a Friend with Breast Cancer)

3 YearsToday is my anniversary: three years in remission from breast cancer.

Hooray! 🎉

If you follow me here or on social media, you've seen that I've had an amazing year full of travel and adventure. I am so fortunate to have had these experiences, and as I've said in years past, the Thanksgiving holiday has special meaning for me now.

Sadly, the breast cancer war is still waged all around us; you likely know someone who has been impacted by it. Over the years, countless people have asked for my advice on how to help a friend or loved one who is facing breast cancer treatment, and I repeatedly forward an email with the below information that I crafted soon after my own fight. I decided to publish it here, as a point of reference for the next person who might find it valuable.  Everyone's situation is different, but these are some of the things that made my own journey more tolerable. Perhaps they'll benefit someone in your life, too.

Flowers and Cards.

FlowersCliché? Maybe. But a colorful bouquet and hand-written note can really lift one's spirits. Especially during the long months of treatment, after the initial shock of diagnosis has passed and you are just trying to get through, day by day. One dear friend even sent a small lemon tree to my home. Beautiful, living things can impart a healing energy when you need it most.


DogearedThere are a lot of pretty, cause-related jewelry options that provide hope as well as a daily reminder that someone was (is) thinking of you. Two lines that I like: Dogeared Make A Wish bracelets on Irish linen, and Bravelets Breast Cancer Awareness jewelry ($10 from each purchase is donated to the cause).

Reading Materials.

Whether to pass the time during long hospital waits, inspire or educate on breast health, or simply distract from heavier thoughts Booksand worries, reading materials of all kinds can be a welcome diversion. I received and stocked up on my share of guilty pleasure magazines (hellooo, US Weekly), light-hearted books, and one serious medical tome in the form of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book - not for the faint of heart but widely considered the Bible for the newly diagnosed (and utterly fascinating reading). Some of my friends put movies (DVDs) in my care packages and they were great - I'm a huge reader, but there were days when my eyes hurt or I just couldn't focus on text and zoning out in front of the TV was perfect.


Gift basketYou can't go wrong by offering to cook a meal or pick up groceries. Everyone needs to eat! And having someone else pick up/prepare it for you is a welcome treat. Just remember: if your friend is undergoing chemotherapy, s/he may very well suffer food intolerance and nausea. I ate mostly bland things during this time: oatmeal, yogurt, applesauce, chicken soup, smoothies. With the occasional burger or steak thrown in when my red blood count was low. 

Head Coverings.

HeadcoverChemotherapy often leads to hair loss, and pretty head coverings come in handy not only for aesthetic reasons but for practical ones, too - bald heads get cold! Pretty knit or felt caps and cotton scarves are the perfect accessory. Avoid any rough/itchy material which can aggravate delicate skin, and silk which can easily slide off. I found some good scarf options at Headcovers.com but you can also find knit caps and square scarves at regular retail stores.

Skin & Nail Care Products.
Chemo makes your skin insanely dry and delicate, so you go through a lot of moisturizer. Near the end of treatment I was using a heavier, medicated balm on my feet (Carmex, with socks) - it was the only thing that kept them comfortable. Chemo can also really damage your nails, causing them to yellow and break. So, rich lotions and pretty nail polishes lifted my spirits and my appearance :)
Cre-C Shampoo.
Cre-c shampooLike skin and nails (and other areas of the body that have high cell turnover, like inside your mouth - see below), chemo damages your hair, causing it to fall out. A friend turned me on to this Cre-C Max herbal shampoo from Mexico (also available on Amazon.com) that is designed to stimulate hair (re)growth. I used it regularly in the weeks and months after treatment and I think it works!
Oral Care Products.
Chemo is tough on the delicate tissue in your mouth, often causing sores that make regular, alcohol-based mouth products unbearable. Fortunately, there are products geared towards people with "dry mouth" that work well. I used Biotene toothpaste, mouthwash and gel to keep my teeth and mouth healthy; it's available at most major drug and grocery stores. And for those suffering with mouth sores...popsicles help!
Natural Tears.
I had a lot of eye problems. The chemo dries out your eyes and then they over produce tears in an effort to moisturize themselves. There were days when I had tears streaming down my face and couldn't keep my eyes open because they were burning. But if you put a few eye drops in every few hours it keeps them in check.
Vitamin D.
Vitamin D supplements are really good to take while your immune system is suppressed, as it helps you fight off infection and helps strengthen bones (but definitely clear it with your doctor first).
Recovery Garments.
HealincomfortAs if surgery isn't bad enough, you're sent home with these God-awful surgical drains to remove fluids from the wound. Without going into the gory details, they are long tubes attached to your side that must be supported so that they don't fall (or get pulled) out. After my mastectomy, the care team at MGH sent me home in a Jacki All Star Shirt, which not only has multiple pockets to support the drains, but also a snap-front closure for ease of dressing (you can't lift your arms over your head after this kind of surgery), and Velcro sides so that nurses can easily check the drains on subsequent visits. Another nice option, which I purchased for a friend recently, is the Heal In Comfort Recovery Kit. It includes a shirt similar to the Jacki, plus a wrap-around drain pouch and shower lanyard. While these items aren't as fun and glamorous as jewelry or flowers, they are incredibly helpful (and comfortable) for those that undergo surgery.
HopeAgain, everyone's situation is different (and much of this is geared toward people who must go the chemo/radiation route), but these are some ideas to show your support. But really, the biggest thing you can do for someone diagnosed with breast cancer is to be a source of positivity and hope.



Thank you, Jackie! I appreciate the kind words, and hope that your friend is doing ok. Stay positive! That is the most important thing when going through a challenge like this. Be well.

Jackie (Mintz) Cohen

Steph, thanks so much for writing this! I'm so glad you're doing so well. I just referred a recently diagnosed friend of mine to your blog to read about your journey, you write with such honesty and humor.

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