Advice from This Mom of Three with Stage-4 Breast Cancer: 'Just Be Present and Listen'
Jamil Rivers found out she had metastatic breast cancer in 2018. The Philadelphia mom of three, who is still working full-time, spoke to PEOPLE in 2019 about her diagnosis in a four-part series about her battle to survive — and thrive — for her family and for other women battling cancer. She currently is helping spearhead a series for Living Beyond Breast Cancer called Understanding Black Breast Cancer, aiming at bringing down the breast cancer mortality rate among Black women (currently, it's 40 percent higher than their white counterparts). Read on for her insights on how best to support someone you love with a cancer diagnosis.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer your entire world changes in an instant. I walked into the doctor’s office and the last thing I ever expected was that they would say I have stage-four breast cancer. Those are words you can’t prepare for, especially when you’re 39 years old.
Family, friends, and caregivers don’t really know what to say when you tell them. But it’s okay not to know what to say. I’ve learned that the best thing they can do is just be present throughout the entire journey. Showing up and helping out in small ways can make a huge difference. Sometimes sitting there and listening is all we need. Or maybe it’s offering to cook dinner, running errands, cleaning the house or taking the kids to school. Fatigue is a huge issue when you have cancer so it’s really the simple things that are so helpful for us.
Don’t put the burden on the person or the patient going through cancer. They shouldn’t have to reach out for help. A lot of the time people battling cancer don’t want to be a burden. That’s one of the main things they’re worried about.
Cancer has a way of forcing people to think about their own mortality. Some people can’t deal with it and they fall off the face of the earth. I’ve found that because people don’t know how to talk to someone with cancer they disappear, but that’s not the way to handle it. That hurts the most. When we do feel isolated, we don’t want to retreat within ourselves. We need those closest to us to be there. When you have cancer you are risk of developing depression because you isolate yourself sometimes, so this is when we need you the most. With this illness it’s an ongoing marathon. There are so many treatments and scans. You have to have endurance — and endless support.
A lot of people say, "It’s just breast cancer. Aren’t you glad that’s the cancer you did get?" Or, "At least you’ll get a free boob job out of it." Some ask patients with metastatic breast cancer why they’re doing treatment again. With metastatic you’re never done with treatment, so those types of things you should be mindful about not saying. They’re not helpful.
We are in this for the long haul. I plan to enjoy every moment I have and I want to spend my life with the people I love and care about. If you know someone who is diagnosed, stick by us. That means everything.
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