Each year an estimated 330,500 women (and 2,670 men) in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer. But many more women are living with the knowledge that they are a carrier for what is commonly known as the “breast cancer gene.”
Technically “breast cancer gene” refers to a mutation in one of two genes, BCRA1 and BRCA2. Everyone has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but certain mutations in them can significantly increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. To put it in context, the average woman in the U.S. has a 12% risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, according to breastcancer.org—a BRCA mutation ups your risk to a 72% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during your lifetime.
A BRCA gene mutation doesn’t mean you will get breast cancer—but it is something to take seriously.
As a friend of someone who recently found out that they have the breast cancer gene mutation, you might be wondering: What can I do during this difficult time? Can I help my friend? What is the best way to offer support? We spoke with six women who have been there about the kind of support that actually helped. Below, their 10 best pieces of advice on how you can support a friend with the breast cancer gene.
“I would make sure to call or text her on a regular basis. Having people check in was so nice. I had one friend who thought she was giving me space, but when people give you space and don’t call, it just feels like they’re too uncomfortable to care.” —Zina, 31
Let your friend simply talk about her feelings.
“In the days after I found out, the most helpful thing was just having honest conversations about my feelings with friends. Just having friends that let me talk out my feelings was incredibly helpful.” —Sarah, 37
Or let her cry if she needs to.
“After I screamed at my mom who was trying to tell me what to do—or not do—as a result of the genetic results, my brother admitted that he didn’t know what to do and how to help. So he just sat with me and let me cry and complain and process.” —Angela, 37
Don’t offer advice unless you’re asked.
“The most helpful reaction was asking what exactly it meant, what my plan was and how they could support me. No judgment, no suggestions of alternative lifestyles or comments like ‘But you breastfed so your risk is lower.’ We have doctors for advice. Friends are for support.” —Katrina, 31
Know that knowledge is power, so arm yourself with it.
“My family and friends all rallied around me. We sat down with my breast oncologist and she gave us a lot of information. I know it is scary as hell to find out you carry the gene, but knowledge is power. Be there for your friend, go to appointments, show up, and show support. If you have to, utilize the internet for information and join Facebook groups. At the end of the day, just be there for her so that she knows she’s not in this alone.” —Beth, 39
Don’t try to sugarcoat their diagnosis.
“Honestly, it’s just nice when someone isn’t trying to make you feel better or try to show you the silver lining. Having BRCA sucks, and I don’t need someone to sugarcoat that.” —Zina, 31
Offer to help in practical ways.
“If your friend opts for preventive surgery, offer a practical act of service, like bringing her a meal or babysitting for her afterward.” —Sarah, 37
Do not try to give advice on what you would do.
“Do not freak out. Do not tell them that they need to remove their breasts or ovaries ASAP. Don’t assume you know what a BRCA mutation means; do your own research and learn a bit more about it. And do not bother sharing with your friend what you would do if it was you. It’s not you; everyone’s situation is different.” —Jennifer, 47
Connect your friend with someone dealing with the same thing.
“The absolute best thing was when someone is able to connect you with another previvor—someone who is a survivor of a predisposition to cancer but who hasn’t had the disease—so you can hear from someone who has been there.” —Katrina, 31
Reach out, even if you haven’t spoken in a while.
“I had a lot of friends come out of the woodwork and reach out to me, people with whom I had not spoken in years, and I was really touched. If you’re not sure if it’s okay, just reach out. The worst that will happen is that the person will not respond, but it may change the outlook for someone struggling.” —Angela, 37