How to help someone who was just diagnosed with breast cancer

TurkeyPlease, don’t bring food, especially large food.

Let me clarify that, please don’t bring food that the patient isn’t expecting and hasn’t requested, unless you know someone really well and know what their family likes to eat.

When we first hear that one of our friends or loved ones has been diagnosed, we typically go into “action” mode – “we’re going to help”,  “we can’t just stand helplessly by and not do something”, “what can I do to help?”.  While it is important to have the support of friends and family when a diagnosis occurs, ultimately, it is the doctors who will treat your disease.

If you want to bring food, it is probably best that you call first and ask what the patient (and her family) might like to have, if there are special food allergies in the family, and how large a portion(s) they can use.  If the patient is part of a family of three, she may not be able to effectively store and/or use 15 servings of your favorite Hungarian goulash.

Getting a breast cancer diagnosis can be a scary part of life for many women, and when we hear about it in the context of our friend or other loved one, many of us tend to freak out a bit.  I think it is so scary (my opinion) because it suddenly makes us understand that we have little to no control over what happens in our life.  Most of us want control, or at least some control, and suddenly our body has betrayed us. We generally have limited, to no, control over how it happened, why it happened, and what will happen next.

What we can control is how we react to the diagnosis. We can find a good team of doctors to treat us, adjust our lives to support our treatment plan, and seek out help from friends and family if we need emotional support or logistical support such as a ride to our chemotherapy appointments, help with cooking or someone to pick up your kids on days when you are at the doctor.

Overstuffed Freezer

Here’s where the food problem comes in.  The patient may need to be on a special diet, may not have room in the refrigerator for the casseroles that arrive unannounced, may already have an overstuffed freezer, or may not like the food they have received (albeit it was made with love and the best of intentions). It may also arrive at an inconvenient time. For example, someone once brought me a cooked and then refrozen 14 lb. roasted turkey at 9:30pm on a Sunday night and this was what my freezer looked like at the time (reenactment).




Here are a few tips on ways you can help:

  1. Try sending the patient a card or email, something along the lines of – “Hi – just thinking of you, if you feel like calling or if there is something I can do to help (e.g. pick up your kids from soccer practice, take you to a doctor’s appointment, make a meal for your family?) please let me know. Xoxo
  1. Continue to treat them like a “regular” person. They are still the same person they were before the diagnosis, they just happen to now have an illness that they will have to take care of and fit into their life.
  1. When you ask the patient how they feel, believe them. If they say they feel good, accept their answer and move on to a new topic – a movie that you just saw,  an upcoming event at the local high school, the latest news from Europe .

Too often I’ve had conversations where I report that I feel fine, and the next question that comes is  “No, really… How do you really feel?”

  1. Send them to for inspiration and tips on how to help manage their diet and lifestyle issues throughout this process.

We know you may feel a little helpless, but please follow social conventions — call before stopping by, ask before bringing something the patient may/or may not need, don’t overstay your visit if the patient seems tired, don’t call on the phone early in the morning unless you’ve already cleared it with the patient and know they will be up and around. Finally, please understand that we all have good days and bad days.  If you call a breast cancer patient and they don’t want to talk, respect their preferences and end the phone call by asking if there is a better time for you to call or stop by.




Barbara Spalding RDN Culinary Dietitian

Hi, I am

Barbara Spalding MS, RDN, Culinary Dietitian

As a dietitian and world traveler, I love bold flavors — in food and in life. 14 years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole into Breast Cancer Wonderland. Since then, I’ve learned to cook differently while savoring the pleasures of food and companionship. I’ve built a resilient new life and a bold new kitchen. Let me show you the flavors of the world.
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