Growing up, cancer was as much a part of Jessica Baladad’s life as “Space Jam” or monkey bars were for other kids. “I always say, ‘Cancer doesn’t run in my family — it sprints,'” she tells POPSUGAR.
Three generations on the paternal side of Baladad’s family have had metastatic breast cancer, and it was talked about very openly when Jessica was young. “I was raised by my dad, and he was very transparent, if a little abrupt. One day, he came home and said, ‘Your Aunt Debbie has breast cancer. She may die,'” Baladad recalls.
After learning that news, the only thing that seemed to make things OK was to continue treating her aunt like the person she is, rather than the disease that was attacking her body, Baladad says. She prioritized empathy and respect, trying her best not to be afraid.
Getting diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (also known as stage 4), can create seismic waves that reverberate through your loved one’s life, forcing them to rethink certain goals and plans. Knowing how to support them (and yourself) through these life-changing impacts and emotional tolls is crucial. Of course, different folks will need different forms of support — but to give you some general guidance for supporting your loved one during this time, we asked loved ones who’ve been there about the best ways to emotionally and physically support someone going through this diagnosis.
Learn your role, but be ready to pivot.
Daralyne Davis, 37, Washington, D.C.
In the seven years since Daralyne Davis’s mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she’s played a variety of roles. The first? Reporter.
At the early appointments, her mom — Rev. Tawana Angela Davis, PhD — remembers feeling “numb.” Tawana couldn’t possibly take in everything the doctor said, so Daralyne diligently took notes for later use. Daralyne also did classic reporter’s outreach, asking for advice from folks who’d experienced similar situations. “The first person I called was my mom’s good friend, who’s a breast cancer survivor,” Daralyne says. “She gave me so much advice on what to prepare for, and those heads-ups really helped remove some of the shock . . . well, everything was still shocking — but I felt more ready.”
Knowing her “role” helped immensely; Daralyne recommends trying to figure out how best you can help your loved one as soon as possible, whether you do so by asking the patient themselves, another person close to them, or their oncologist.
Once Tawana began her treatments, her daughter took on a caregiver role: she cleaned surgical drains, made meals, helped her mom go to the bathroom. This time was solemn, but the mother-daughter duo did their best to find joy. For example, Daralyne would take goofy selfies with her mom and brother. And, when Tawana began to lose her hair and a barber came over to shave her head, Daralyne joined. “I just sat in the chair after my mom, and said: ‘My turn!'” Daralyne remembers.
“In my family, hair is very important,” she says. “I wanted my mom to know how beautiful she still was and that the hair didn’t define her beauty.” Soon, several of their other friends shaved their heads in an act of solidarity. Finding that community made all the difference, Daralyne says.
“My daughter was the core of the community,” Tawana recalls. “She was by my side every waking moment.” Well, not every moment — there were a few times Daralyne knew she needed to take a step back, asking someone else to take her mom to the occasional appointment. But even when Daralyne took time for herself, she was always there for her mom emotionally, helping her process tough decisions like moving from Denver to Baltimore and switching care teams. “I couldn’t have done this without my daughter. I wouldn’t be here without her care and patience and love,” Tawana says.
Seven years after Tawana’s diagnosis, her scans are showing no evidence of disease, and she’s been able to take breaks from the constant treatments. Now Daralyne’s role is more “managerial.” She checks in with her mom frequently, looks over her scans, and sometimes FaceTimes into appointments to ask questions of doctors. She’s grateful that her mom is doing better, but adds that she’s ready for anything, as all loved ones of those with MBC must be.
“I was relieved — no, blessed — to be taking this new role,” Daralyne says. “But you never know when things will change again. I always stay ready, so I don’t have to get ready.”
Remember to fill your own cup.
Jessica Baladad, 38, Nashville, TN
Baladad also believes her role as a supportive loved one to someone with MBC is always evolving.
As Baladad grew, the cancer diagnoses in her family did, too — and she went from supporting her aunt as a cute kid who sends handmade cards to helping out as a teen and adult, dealing with some of the more complicated aspects of loving someone with MBC. At age 18, Baladad learned that another aunt was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Neither aunt wanted Baladad’s grandma to know about their diagnoses, because they didn’t want to scare her. “Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s about honoring people’s wishes,” Baladad remembers.
All in all, 14 women in Baladad’s family have had breast cancer, several of which were metastatic cases. And on Aug. 6, 2018, Baladad herself was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer at 33 years old. “It wasn’t until my own diagnosis that I realized the mental health part is just as important as being there for someone physically at their appointments,” she says. “It’s important to check in and ask people how they’re doing. You may see someone being strong, but you don’t know what’s in the back of their mind,” she says.
As someone who’s supported people through breast cancer and had it herself, Baladad recommends people offer help that aligns with their skill sets. If you’re the social butterfly of your friend group, you can offer to be the person to give updates on treatments to the group, so the patient doesn’t have to keep talking about it. If you’re good at accounting and organization, offer to help with medical bills and insurance.
Baladad adds that it’s important to process your own grief as a caregiver, whether that means going to therapy or journaling or something else. “Your brain wants to protect you from harm, and that can mean you’re in denial,” she says. But that can turn into toxic positivity, which is not always helpful to the caregiver or loved one. “Processing your own emotions helps so that you’re not bringing the ‘it’ll be fine’ mindset to deep conversations patients need to have about their life,” she says. “Toxic positivity undermines their experience, and it’s more important to meet them where they’re at emotionally.”
In other words, take care of yourself, so you can take care of others. Baladad says this means making sure you’re eating and resting, too, and getting your breast cancer screenings, checkups, and any genetic testing that might be helpful if breast cancer runs in your family. “Do all you can to stay healthy, so you can be there for your people,” she says.
Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.
Joel Ontiveros, 44, Cedar City, UT
Joel Ontiveros’s love story started with a social media comment. Back in 2018, his current partner, Deb, was just someone he followed on Facebook because they were both in the same activist community. One day, one of her posts struck him. Deb wrote that she’d been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and the man she was seeing at the time had left because of it.
“I commented to say that I had a brain tumor before and, at the time, a lot of people who I thought cared about me just disappeared,” he says. “She sent me a direct message after that, and we just started talking.” They never stopped.
After a year of friendship, romance bloomed. “I had love for [Deb], and I had to say it — I didn’t care if she loved me back, and I didn’t care if she had cancer,” he says.
They’ve been married for two years now. Unlike many caregivers, Ontiveros signed up for the relationship knowing his partner had cancer, and he takes his role as a support to Deb very seriously. Being there for her has meant not just showing up for her physically, but supporting her mental health, too.
“She’s bipolar, and so I try to make sure that I’m there when her stage 4 breast cancer is intersecting with her mental illness,” he says. “I try to make sure I’m there and aware and understanding . . . Understanding is one of the biggest things you can give someone. Let them go through what they need to go through.”
Often, those with MBC will think about their mortality. Let them discuss it — and leave your opinions at the door, Ontiveros says. “Some people will say things like, ‘You’re going to go to a better place’ or ‘I’m going pray for you’ — it feels fake. I think it’s better to just be real. I’m here to say to her: ‘We don’t know what is going to happen. Things are going to get hard and scary, but I’m going to be there for you . . . we’re going to do this together.'”
Ontiveros adds that it’s crucial to respect your loved one’s views during this time. “Deborah is spiritual and has her beliefs, and they may be different from mine,” he says. “When we’re talking about her illness, I’m going to give her space to talk about her beliefs, and I’m not going to argue.” He calls this “centering” the other person which usually requires listening, remaining open-minded, and following their communication style (if they want to talk, let them; if they just want to cuddle, that’s fine, too).
Another key supportive step: educating yourself. “You need to know the nuances of what your partner is going through,” he says. If your partner is a woman of color, for example, the road ahead may be rough due to the range of disparities these communities face, Ontiveros says.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Black and Hispanic women, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). And, Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women in America, despite the fact that Black women have a lower breast cancer incidence rate, a 2022 ACS report found. These stats can be hard for a patient to swallow and even harder to experience — but not only can you be there for them as they’re processing these injustices, you can help advocate for them when they can’t do it for themselves.
“There are going to be times your partner is going to be beat down from the medicine or going through the psychological strain of it all, so you’re going to have to be their advocate — their mouthpiece — and do things they can’t, whether it’s getting a specific medicine or appointment time,” Ontiveros says.
Another important piece of the support puzzle is finding community. “We went to the Living Beyond Breast Cancer conference, and I met other partners and parents who have loved ones going through this,” Ontiveros says. “It’s a good way to reenergize, because there’s another level of understanding . . . It’s hard for men — especially minority men — to connect with other men. But I noticed this community was more open.”
You can also help your partner find similar community. Deb’s, for example, has helped her beyond belief, and, lately, she’s been taking the activism skills that she and Ontiveros initially bonded over years ago to advocate within the breast cancer community. Ontiveros couldn’t be prouder. “I don’t just look at her as a partner, I look at her as a role model,” he says.
Know that your best is good enough.
Allyn Rose Oertel, 35, Frankfurt, Germany
Allyn Rose Oertel was only 12 when her mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer — young enough that her mother didn’t want her to know about it. “But I was a little sleuth, and I figured it out when I saw a wig catalog that had come to her office when I was there with her one day,” Rose says. “I asked her what it was for, and she sat me down and told me [it was] breast cancer.”
The years after that were some of Rose’s most challenging. “You’re getting your own breasts and figuring out who you are,” she remembers. “I always tried to be emotionally there for my mom, but it put me in a bit of a tough position — you’re expecting your mom to guide you through this new chapter of your life, but you’re often the one being the caretaker.”
Eventually, Rose found that as a daughter, she could also support her mom and have empathy in ways her dad and brother just couldn’t, especially when it came to some of the physical changes.
“There’s this sentiment when you’re a survivor or getting treatments that the way you look should be secondary, and that’s not fair,” Rose says. “These are really impactful moments in their life that they’re now having to navigate in a different body.” Her mom had had one breast removed already during a previous bout with breast cancer before Rose was born. Having the second breast removed with the new diagnosis was difficult for Rose’s mom, because she associated it with being a woman, Rose says. She found that what helped her mom most during this time was to give her grace with her emotions. “If you allow yourself to feel the way you feel, you have better outcomes in the end, because you’ve validated your own experience,” Rose adds.
Rose’s mom died when she was 16. In the years since, she’s found it helpful to acknowledge the deep range of nuanced emotions she’s felt. “Sometimes I wish I could have done more for her — especially now that I have a new perspective on what she went through because I’m a mother myself — but I don’t beat myself up for it,” she says.
Rose points out that many caregivers put their own needs on the back burner in order to prioritize their loved one. “It can feel like you’re never quite doing enough, and you’re also navigating your own grief. But you have to take care of yourself, and you can’t be the caregiver you want to be if you haven’t taken care of your own needs,” she says. “You need to forgive yourself for not being everything you want to be, as long as you’re doing the best you can.” Rose adds that finding ways to honor the person you love with MBC can be helpful to healing.
Rose’s mom’s legacy lives in her, she says, as she’s become an advocate for breast cancer awareness, especially as a “previvor” who underwent a preventative double mastectomy. She’s also given a TED Talk about the choice and her journey supporting her mom through MBC.
“My mom was a fiercely independent person and a go-getter,” she says. “She’s not here now, but I’m going to make use of every day she doesn’t have.”
Image Source: Getty / R. Tsubin/ Allyn Rose Oertel/ Joel Ontiveros