“The big takeaway is that most women with early stage breast cancer are involving multiple people—not just a spouse or partner—but other family, friends and colleagues to help them make informed decisions,” said Dr. Lauren P. Wallner, assistant professor of general medicine and epidemiology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the paper, published in the journal Cancer.
The size of a woman’s support network matters.
“People faced with a new cancer diagnosis are still processing the information. They are often scared and overwhelmed. They are not able to grasp all the details. It’s helpful to have support, someone with them who can help weigh the pros and cons of what the doctor is saying and the different treatment options,” Wallner said.
Larger support networks were associated with more deliberation about treatment, which is critical as treatment options become more complex, Wallner said. More deliberation suggests patients are thinking through pros and cons, discussing it with others and weighing the decision carefully. The more people a woman has supporting her, the better her decisions are, Wallner said.
“When patients are diagnosed with cancer, there’s this rush to get through the treatment process. But for patients with early stage breast cancer, they have some time to decide on their treatment choice,” Wallner said. “The idea that women are discussing their options more with their family and friends and potentially thinking through that decision more carefully is reassuring. Engaging these informal support networks could be a way to prevent women from rushing into something.”
The study found that only 10 percent of women said they had no personal decision support network. Nearly three-quarters said their support network talked with them about their treatment options and frequently attended their appointments.
African-American and Latina women reported larger networks than did white women. Women who were married or partnered also reported more support.
Even among women without a partner or spouse, many had large support networks. Women reported children, friends, siblings, parents and other relatives were involved in their decision-making.
How you can help
Offer to go along to an appointment and take notes. “It is incredibly helpful to have another set of eyes and ears,” Wallner said.
Help with research
“If you’re internet-savvy, help do research and track down information,” Wallner said.
Just be there
“On a basic level, just being present lets the patient know she is not alone,” Wallner said.
Doctors need to involve others
“Physicians should be aware that women want to include others in their treatment decisions,” Wallner said.
A woman without a support network may need extra help or information during the decision process.
“It starts with something as simple as physicians asking patients who is helping them make their treatment decisions. That can then guide the conversation, such as the amount of resources the physician provides and to whom they communicate that information,” she said.