How to Cope when a Loved One has Breast Cancer
October, 2006 - Issue #24
She was pregnant with her second child when she discovered a lump. As with most pregnancies, it didn't seem unusual to have lumps and bumps over your body, but with a growing concern, she brought it to the attention of her obstetrician. For some reason, the doctors decided to "watch" it. As the as pregnancy progressed, the lump grew and subsequent tests revealed breast cancer.

In her eighth month of pregnancy, the doctors induced labor and I was introduced to my new nephew. Shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law underwent a mastectomy.

That was four years ago. My sister-in-law beat back the cancer and was in remission for two years before it came back with a vengeance throughout her entire body. Today she takes oral morphine to deal with the pain and to give her a chance to raise her two young sons. She said she will have chemotherapy for the rest of her life.

I am constantly amazed at my sister-in-law's spirit. She is a survivor. My brother is a co-survivor and has enough energy to deal with just about everything that is thrown at them these days. We've brought the family meals, help with housekeeping and assisted with some of the financial burden. So why is it that we feel hopeless? There must be a category for us, the extended family.

Help is Available

There are multiple organizations in Santa Clarita that provide emotional, medical or financial assistance to breast cancer survivors and their caregivers. Here are a few...

• Colleen Shaffer's organization, Circle of Hope, can be reached by calling 254-5218 or by logging on to

• For more information on the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center call 253-8822.

• One of the newest Santa Clarita support groups, weSPARK can be reached at 362-6388. The support center was opened in Sherman Oaks in 2001 by actress Wendi Jo Sperber who lost her battle with breast cancer last fall. The SCV office opened in July. weSPARK is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for cancer patients, their families and friends in a home-like setting.

• The Brenda Mehling Cancer Fund (BMCF) supports patients ages 18 to 40 who are currently undergoing cancer treatment. Reach the organization via e-mail at
Our community is alive with breast cancer fundraisers and breast cancer support groups. Someone, I figured, could help me know what to say, what to do to help my brother and his family. I started calling around. One of the first calls was to the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center, an affiliate of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. Director Terry Bucknall answered the phone. The Veloz Center opened in 2002 and advocates yearly mammograms. Since opening, the Veloz Center has diagnosed 210 cases of cancer.

Bucknall listened patiently as I gave her a history of my sister-in-law's battle and a list of my frustrations. She agreed that there must be more patient advocacy and has been researching a "nurse navigator" position for the center. Bucknall gave me some good advice and referred me to several support groups.

"Take advantage to whatever support there is and arm yourself with as much information as you can get," she said. "If you are a friend of a breast cancer survivor, don't ask what they want, just listen and observe and then do what needs to be done."

Colleen Shaffer, founder and director of the Circle of Hope, Inc., spent more than an hour on the phone with me. She said she knows just how we feel. Shaffer discovered she had breast cancer in 1999. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy and was able to beat back the cancer for three years. Now living with metastatic breast cancer, Shaffer doesn't hesitate to ask for help this time around. She believes that in every crisis lies an opportunity and in 2002 Shaffer gave birth to the Angel of Hope. You might have seen her at community events dressed in a pink satin gown with a pink wig and glowing pink wings. Her organization is there to offer support and financial aid to breast cancer survivors.

"Your brother needs to ask for help," Shaffer said. Co-survivors wear a lot of hats and they need to learn how to pass them around.

"Co-survivors go through everything a survivor does," Shaffer said. "It's actually harder to be the caregiver. There needs to be a support system in place so the caregiver can get out on their own and not feel guilty about it."

It is important to have a plan, to write down the decisions that are made and to share them with family and friends. These plans, if properly prepared, can be in place for years. If there are children involved, Shaffer said their needs have to be met and their concerns have to be addressed.

Family members and friends can help by giving the family of a breast cancer patient an opportunity to take care of themselves, Shaffer said. Volunteer to watch the younger children, help organize a scrapbook (What's mom's favorite color? How did mom and dad meet?) and let the family know you can be at their side at the drop of a hat.

"Breast cancer is a chronic disease and like any other chronic disease, those who are taking care of survivors need to learn to take care of themselves," Shaffer said. "If they don't, caregivers have more of a chance of getting sick. You can't take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself."

Not an easy thing to do for anyone who has been in the position of caregiver. I found myself angry at my brothers and sisters when our mother was sick. I wondered why they didn't help and pondered as to why they weren't calling me every day to find out how she was doing. My life was disrupted, but as far as I was concerned, they were going about their normal lives without any problems. It didn't seem fair and I was angry. Finally I realized that when I asked them for help, and I'm talking specific help, my brothers and sisters were more than willing to jump in. It made my task much easier and my relationship with my siblings much better.

Calling around for help is exhausting, but I appreciate the support I received from these two organizations. There are several support groups in our community and I urge anyone in a position of caregiver or co-survivor not to hesitate to pick up the phone.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to gathering up some family members and friends and getting started on that scrapbook.
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