A cancer diagnosis is often overwhelming for both the person receiving the news and those close to him or her. It can leave many unsure of how to help when they’re devastated or trying to process the information themselves. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and millions of families throughout Maine and the country are spending the month sharing stories, information and raising awareness of how breast cancer has affected their lives.

According to the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors live in the U.S. and have almost as many unique experiences with the disease. Not all breast cancers are not the same and not all tumors grow at the same rate or spread the same way, said Suzanne Brunner, the director of Caring Connections, a cooperative women’s health program in Bangor that offers support to people facing breast cancer.

Brunner recently took the time to talk with the Bangor Daily News about the effect breast cancer has on families and support people, what resources are available and how families can talk to children about the realities of a diagnosis.

Q: What should friends and others do to help alleviate the emotional and physical toll breast cancer can take on families?

When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, roles and expectations may change. Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about your feelings, because you both have so much going on. Many people find one of the best ways to cope with stress and loneliness is to talk to others who share similar experiences.

Find a local support group or look online for a professionally led, free community such as Cancer Support Community Online. Only you can determine what type of support works best, but what typically doesn’t work is not seeking any support at all.

A common feeling among support persons and people with cancer is uncertainty. Planning may be difficult, but it can help. Schedule fun activities on days when your loved one is not feeling the side effects of treatment or plan how you will celebrate the end of treatment.

You can ask your loved one if he or she needs or wants assistance with necessary paperwork, such as writing a will. It is in everyone’s best interest that this process begins sooner rather than later. Having essential paperwork under control can help with peace of mind.

Even seasoned caregivers find themselves caught up in the whirlwind of appointments, daily errands and treatments. No one can do everything. It’s OK to acknowledge limits and make sure to eat well and get enough sleep. Come to terms with feeling overwhelmed and resolve to be firm when deciding what you can and cannot handle on your own.

Maintaining a balance between a loved one’s disease and the daily activities of your own life can be a challenge. Take a deep breath and realize that the support you provide is priceless. Taking time for you is not selfish, it’s necessary. You are working hard to provide and secure the best care for your loved one.

Q: What should families know about talking to children about a breast cancer diagnosis or treatment?

As a parent or grandparent, it may be tempting to shield young children from the fact that you have breast cancer, but this is not a good idea. Although young children do not need detailed information, they do need honesty and reassurance.

Plan out the conversation in advance and use direct, simple language to define what cancer is, where it is in your body, and how it will be treated. Even very young children can grasp simple explanations of what cells are and how they sometimes don’t follow the rules and grow as they should. A doll or stuffed animal can be a useful visual aid.

Also, make sure children know that the cancer isn’t their fault and they cannot catch it.

Tell them how treatment for cancer will affect you and reassure them that their needs will be met. Let your children know that you may not always be available to take them to school and special activities, play with them, or prepare their meals. However, tell them about the trusted friends, relatives, or other care providers who will be helping out until you feel strong again.

Keep usual limits in place and keep their routines as consistent as possible. Maintaining the same sense of structure you always have is likely to reassure your children more than giving them special privileges or treats.

Invite children to ask questions and learn more, and set a positive, optimistic tone without making promises

Let teachers, school counselors, coaches or other caregivers know what is going on. Changes at home often cause changes in children’s behavior in other settings. These adults can help you know how your child is doing, and they can become a source of additional care and support.

Q: What are some of the support groups in Maine for families and patients?

Caring Connections Support Groups are located in Bangor, Calais, Millinocket and Pittsfield.

Trained Caring Connections leaders are also located in the Dover-Foxcroft and Stonington-Deer Isle areas.

An Ellsworth Breast Cancer Support Group meets quarterly at the Beth Wright Center.

Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Cancer Care of Maine at the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer offers a number of services to women with breast cancer and support groups for partners.

For more information about any of the groups, call 941-2808, ext. 337 or 228.

Q: Where are some reliable places to find out more about cancer?

There are many resources online, but it is important to make sure you’re reading information from a credible source.

A few include:

— The American Cancer Society at http://www.cancer.org/
— National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute at http://www.cancer.gov/
— http://www.breastcancer.org/
— Cancercare at http://www.cancercare.org/

Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...