"Girls, sorry to share such rubbish news. We found out today that I have Grade 3 breast cancer."
Emily sadly passed away in 2021. Here her closest friends share their experience of supporting their dear friend through one of the hardest times of all their lives...
On the 23rd January 2018, Emily; our friend of 17+ years sent us this devastating message.
The earthquake that coursed through us all that day was catastrophic. Feelings of fear, shock and disbelief, amongst many other emotions overtook and we had so many questions we desperately wanted the answers to. We knew Emily had the BRCA1 gene. We also knew she had found a small lump one evening, a few weeks prior, in the tissue between her left breast and armpit. Emily was also pregnant with her second child, Arlo. Emily went to get it checked out and we all hoped and believed the GP was right; it would just be hormonal due to pregnancy. ‘She’s going to be fine’ we told ourselves. ‘She’s young, she’s vigilant, she has a young daughter with another baby on the way. It won’t be cancer, it’ll be fine.’
Sadly, this was not the case. Emily was 28 years old, 20 weeks pregnant and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
How do you respond to such a message? Do you call? Surely texting is inappropriate. But she must be in shock and you don’t want to overwhelm her. You don’t want to overreact and frighten her. We can’t tell her she’ll be ok, that sounds too blasé. Don't ask too many questions, but don’t ask too little. She needs to know we care. Of course, Emily knew that we cared and we all knew deep down that there was absolutely nothing we could say that would fix this, no matter how desperately we wanted to.
A few weeks later Emily’s treatment plan was confirmed; a left mastectomy imminently, followed by a course of chemotherapy. Hearing what your friend will have to endure, especially whilst pregnant, can be very overwhelming and we had a lot of questions. Cancer care can seem very complicated; there’s lots of different types, stages, treatments, side effects and medical terminology to get your head around. Emily was a pharmacist and therefore her medical knowledge helped her get to grips with the facts. We didn’t feel it was appropriate to be asking her endless questions, hoping to alleviate our worst fears. We just wanted to be supportive and strong for Emily, so we took it upon ourselves to do our own research. There is a lot of information out there so ensuring that we used reputable websites and charities was really important. Feeling informed helped us when Emily or her loved ones discussed treatments or prognosis and enabled us to purely listen to whatever she needed to talk about in that moment.
Sometimes, the conversations felt really daunting. We often overthink sensitive matters, let alone a conversation with your best friend about having cancer. What if she talks about losing her hair, or the effect treatment may have on the baby...what if she talks about dying?
Emily shied away from emotive conversations, she preferred to be practical and stick to the facts. Everyone is individual and has different communication styles. We found the best way to tackle sensitive subjects was to be really honest and open. We regularly asked Emily what she wanted to talk about and what she didn’t, instead of trying to guess or assume. If she didn’t shy away from certain topics, neither did we. If she shut a conversation down, we let her. In essence we adjusted as often as she needed, to be what she needed; someone to vent to, someone to distract her, someone to be normal with, a shoulder to cry on. All of which were paramount at various stages throughout her diagnosis.
There were times when Emily wanted to talk and times when she just wanted to knuckle down and carry on as ‘normal’.
Having a toddler whilst being pregnant/having a new-born is an absolute whirlwind without a cancer diagnosis and complex treatment added on top. We felt a need to check in with Emily regularly, to show her we were thinking of her and there to support her in any way she needed. But we also needed her to know we didn’t expect a reply if she didn’t feel up to it. We needed to relieve any guilt or pressure she may have felt when it came to maintaining the usual friendship admin, as we weren’t in a normal situation. We were there no matter what; no expectations, no caveats.
At times emotional support could be too overwhelming for both sides. Emily didn’t want to hash out her feelings constantly when she had two little people that depended on her so intensely. As a close group of friends from school, we lived all across the UK. Therefore, it was not possible to just pop in to help out at the drop of a hat. We all found it incredibly hard that we couldn’t provide that type of support. We wanted to be close by, drop meals in, take the children out for a walk when she needed a rest, get her a missed item off the shopping list. Emily had mentioned that others close by had been able to help with these things and she had been so grateful for the support. We had to swallow our own feelings about being the person that made her life that little bit easier every day and just be grateful there were people there when she needed them. When Emily was first diagnosed with cancer, we all just wanted to get in the car and be on her doorstep. However, this wasn’t always possible due to distance, jobs and children of our own. Plus, we are sure the last thing Emily wanted at that time was to host a load of emotional guests! Along with the rest of our group of school friends, we decided to send her a box of items we hoped would help get her through treatment. We can’t be the first people to have done this, as searching ‘what do I buy someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer’ as silly as it seems, generated a lot of results on google!
The box included:
A button up shirt (to make getting dressed easier post mastectomy surgery, also great for breastfeeding).
A Neom sleep inducing candle.
Anti sickness sea Band bracelets.
A soft blanket.
Light hearted books; to take with her to chemo appointments.
A lavender infused heat pack to help with the chills.
A fan; to help with the fevers.
Jack Whitehall DVDS; her favourite to make her laugh!
Elizabeth Arden 24-hour cream; to help with her skin after rounds of chemo.
Some trashy, but nonetheless brilliant and much needed, magazines.
We wanted to send items that would be helpful, but we were conscious that receiving these items may feel very scary, or confronting. Wanting to not appear insensitive, we sent a note stating we knew that gifts couldn’t fix what she was about to face and that if she opened the box and found herself wanting to put it in a cupboard and not think about it for now, that was absolutely fine by us.
We all knew spending money wasn’t important but we felt the need to do SOMETHING, we think that’s completely normal and Emily appreciated us thinking of her.
When your friend gets diagnosed with cancer it really does put everything into perspective. Time suddenly appears precious, missed opportunities with that friend are suddenly devastating losses. There were definitely times when Emily just wanted to feel like Emily, not someone with breast cancer. Having those seemingly ordinary and normal experiences was really important to her which is why we also made it our priority to organise a baby shower for her to celebrate Arlo’s imminent arrival. Emily and Arlo deserved to be made a fuss of, just like any other pregnancy! Again, we all grouped together to compile baby games and make ALL the baked treats (seriously, as a group we reckon we could run that Bake Off tent!). We made sure to include sugar-free options as Emily had gestational diabetes which was brought on by her treatment. It was such a gloriously sunny day and Emily looked so beautiful and happy despite having worried earlier about her wig before guests arrived. It felt so wonderfully normal and if we’re honest, it was such a relief to see her laugh whilst attempting to open a mountain of presents all the while entertaining her shadow; the 21 old month Millie. We hoped that Emily could attempt to put the dreaded word ‘cancer’ and everything associated with it aside for a while and enjoy being surrounded by those who knew just how phenomenal she was and indulge us all by guessing which celebrity had the audacity to name their child Bluebell Madonna! Arlo was born less than 2 weeks later and we’ve all adored him ever since.
We also felt desperate to spend some quality time with Emily.
We organised a weekend away in Bath that October to celebrate Emily completing chemotherapy. We were sure to hold off a little, as having chemotherapy whilst caring for a toddler and new-born baby had completely wiped her out. We had the most special weekend, laughing, gossiping and making new memories, a time we are all so grateful for.
Having a friend diagnosed with cancer turns everyone’s world upside down. You want to be strong for that person, but where does that leave you? We learned pretty early on that we needed an outlet for our feelings and fears. We needed somewhere where we could have honest and frank conversations, where we could sob, where we could be the ‘strong one’ when one of us was struggling more so than others - we found the role of the ‘Strong one’ could change multiple times at any given moment. We found it important to look out for each other because we didn’t feel that we could look out for ourselves, it almost felt too indulgent when it was our friend that was suffering, not us.
When you’re defined as a ‘friend’ you can feel selfish when confronting your own feelings. You can’t express you’re finding it hard to cope because it’s worse for Emily, surely, it’s worse for her husband, her children, her family.
But your feelings and mental health do matter and they need to be taken care of. Surround yourself with people that care about you, talk about how you’re feeling, what you’re scared of, cry until there are no tears left.
We were ticking time bombs whenever we didn't offload or if we tried to be stronger than we were actually feeling. Whether it's a WhatsApp group, unexpectedly pouring your heart out to a colleague in the staff room or crying to your mum; tell someone how you're really feeling. You are heartbroken. Yes, you do need to hold it together for your friend, but you don't need to cry your eyes out to her. Your mental health has taken a devastating hit so don't bottle things up as this is exactly when your friends and family will be there for you in a heartbeat.
With our own and combined support network we were all able to be strong when we needed to be; for Emily, her children, her husband and her family.
Sophie, Emily, Hannah and Sarah x