How to Build a Support Network

By Lola Baltzell

People often ask me: How do you manage to live with metastatic breast cancer? One of the most important strategies for me has been building a support network.

My diagnosis of breast cancer that had already spread to my bones came out of the blue. I had a normal mammogram 13 months earlier, and no known risk factors. So when I heard the news in August 2008, my first impulse was to reach out for support.

Of course we are all different and have our own ways of coping over time. But for me, support from family and friends was very important. I sent out an e-mail to those closest to me, as well as colleagues and neighbors. It was a risk, I suppose, to be so open. However, I received a deluge of encouragement. After my first surgery, I had visitors, flowers, food, cards, and other gifts which reassured me that I was not alone.

I was so struck by the level of care and concern, I made a vow that when I got well again, I would be that kind of person myself.

A good friend suggested that I start a blog. The blog would allow me to communicate with a lot of people without having to give the same information over and over again. The blog also turned out to be therapeutic for me, as I wrote frankly about all aspects of my cancer experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Again, this approach is not for everyone. I exposed myself, showed how I was thinking and feeling, and invited others along on this most intimate of journeys.

That said, living with cancer means living with maddening uncertainty, and there are times when I need privacy. At a recent checkup, in fact, my doctor had concerns about my bone scan.

When I got my results, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I wanted to be alone. I did not feel the need to explain myself to anyone, or ask permission. I just left town and spent a few days by myself in the country. It’s so important to recognize what you need, when, and make no apologies for it.

Finally, building a relationship with your providers is critical. I will never forget meeting my oncologist, Dr. Ann Partridge, for the first time. I went to the consultation with my husband and sister, and we were all terrified. But once Dr. Partridge walked in the room, we knew we were in good hands. She shook our hands with a firm grip, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I am going to take good care of you. Whatever is ahead of us, we will manage it together.”

Cancer happens. It’s not your fault. There is no one to blame. It turns your life upside down and affects everyone around you. The silver lining, if there is one, is that you do have a lot of choice. Every day, every moment, you get to choose how to respond to your circumstances. Having cancer can be an opportunity to stretch and grow into the person you’ve always wanted to be.

Laura (“Lola”) Baltzell is an artist and Dana-Farber patient.

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