The Call Back
When my mother went in for a routine mammogram shortly after Christmas one year, we laughed about how she'll definitely get a call back since it's pretty common for routine mammograms to require a second look before giving the all-clear. Just as we suspected, she was called back for that second look, but it turned out that it wasn't a laughing matter. The doctor was direct with her, "We're pretty sure this is cancer." I was floored. She was floored.
In her mid-50s, my mother is a non-smoker and non-drinker and had always been an otherwise healthy person. It seemed totally unlikely to both of us that she'd ever be diagnosed with breast cancer. It shouldn't have been, though, since according to BreastCancer.org, 1 out of every 8 women in the United States will deal with invasive breast cancer at some point in her life.
I can't say that I dealt with it well 100% of the time, but I know that it brought me closer to my mother and gave me fresh insight into what's really important.
Here's how to cope with your emotions, juggle your own health and responsibilities and still be a present help when your mom has breast cancer.
How Common Is Breast Cancer?
Actually way more common than I'd first thought before this experience. According to the page linked above:
"As of January 2019, there are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment." - BreastCancer.org
What Does This Mean?
It means your mom isn't alone, and neither are you! Although it's a bummer that breast cancer diagnoses happen in high numbers, it also means that treatments are advancing, and there's lots of support and resources for those affected by it. Here are some of the best:
- National Breast Cancer Foundation Here, you and your mom can learn about breast cancer facts vs. myths and more information on diagnosis, stage, and treatment options.
- BreatCancer.org This has been my go-to resource during times of confusion and fear. There's a great forum here with a space for loved ones to ask questions and seek support while they support their loved ones. There's also a bunch of wonderful information pertaining to the day-to-day of living with a breast cancer diagnosis. At times when my mother felt overwhelmed, I could hop on here and relay information to her when I could tell she didn't have the energy to seek it herself.
What You Can Expect to Feel After the Diagnosis
Now that your mom has an official diagnosis, you're probably feeling a lot. Here's an exhaustive list of what I felt during my mom's cancer diagnosis.
First and foremost, I just felt scared for her and what I knew she must be going through with her own emotions and fears. Medical stuff is never fun, and when you have a cancer diagnosis, medical stuff becomes your everyday. I was scared for her to feel pain, to feel lonely, to feel rushed or busy. I felt scared for all of her unknowns.
My mom has breast cancer, and I'm depressed is a pretty common Google search term, and I know firsthand why. It's depressing! Staying up late at night to worry about your mom, mulling over the future and the reality of cancer treatment can all contribute to the overwhelming feeling of sadness you may be experiencing.
Overcome with Worry (AKA Anxiety)
Everyone experiences anxiety once in a while, but during a cancer crisis, it can really start to snowball. I could stave it off for most of the day as I have small children at home to take care of, but as bedtime came around and the house quieted down, those anxious thoughts always came into focus. Will my mom be okay? Is she being honest with me about how she's feeling? What's going to happen? Anxiety always got worse while waiting for test results, and I would spend hours researching what each little bit of data could mean, culling for hope on Reddit threads and medical sites.
On top of everything else, I often had moments of just feeling angry! How could this have happened to my mom? She lived an intentionally healthy lifestyle, was kind and loving and always put her family first. How could cancer be so ruthless?
Oftentimes my default emotion was actually numbness. I knew that what was happening was big, scary and difficult. While I wanted to give in to these feelings, I knew that not only was it not fair to my mom to see me crumble when she needed me now, more than ever, to be strong, but I deserved to indulge in self-preservation. Sometimes that meant shutting off my emotions and just getting through the day.
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Remorseful and Guilty
My mother's diagnosis caused me to completely rethink my priorities and every little way I'd been a brat to her up until that point. I'm not sure this was very healthy, but I do think it's natural, when someone you love is dealing with a health crisis, to reevaluate how you've treated them in the past and how you can improve. Suddenly, little irritations and grievances become petty and the things that really count come into focus.
Although I did my best to help my mother through her diagnosis and treatment, what I really wanted was to take cancer away. Which, of course, I couldn't. This want to make everything better all at once can lead you to feel helpless.
If My Mom Has Breast Cancer, What Are My Chances?
According to WebMD, if your mom has experienced breast cancer, you're twice as likely to be diagnosed with it at some point. Keep in mind though that cancer isn't one-size-fits-all. The cancer my mom was diagnosed with was highly treatable and after a lumpectomy and a course of radiation she's now considered cured by her doctors.
Make an appointment with a gynecologist to talk about your options and make a plan for vigilance.
My doctor now suggests that I begin screening for breast cancer at 40 using a 3D mammogram.
How to Be There For Your Mom
Ask, How Can I Be Here for You?
With my mom, I found that what I thought might be helpful (going to doctor's appointments with her) was not what she wanted. Instead, we found that one of the best ways I could help her was to navigate patient portals, test results and anything about her treatment that was technical (like downloading health apps to her iPhone).
Prepare Meals for Her
Putting a crockpot of soup on in the morning so it was done in time for my mom to stop by and grab a bowl after radiation and work seemed to be a comfort to her. Sometimes, with cancer, it's the little everyday things that are so routine that get tossed around by the chaos.
Offer to Pick Up Her Prescriptions, Snacks, etc.
Another thing that seemed to really help my mom out was running up to the store for her if she needed a prescription or was out of shampoo or cereal.
Invite Her Over to Do Something Fun
Although her radiation treatment started to tire my mom out towards the end of her six weeks of treatment, she was still usually up for coming over and watching a movie or having me over for an hour or two just to hang out. Doing something fun together doesn't need to be epic, but intentionally spending time together can be so comforting during treatment.
Stay Away From Her if You've Been Sick Recently or Exposed to Illness
This was so hard because spending time with my mom helped quell my anxieties about her cancer. However, I knew it was important to stay clear if I felt even a cold coming on. Although it may seem extreme, cancer and cancer treatments weaken the immune system and make it easier for those who are dealing with it to come down with sickness and infection. Unless you absolutely can't avoid it, stay away from your mom if you or anyone in your home is feeling sick so she doesn't have to be sick too. If you can't avoid it, make sure you wear a mask, preferably a KN95 mask to limit her exposure when you're together.
How to Be There For Yourself
Lean on Friends
At first, I didn't tell any of my friends that my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer because I didn't want to blurt it out before she was ready to talk about it. After a little time went by, I recognized that I needed to be able to connect and have someone to vent to besides my husband and reached out to a close friend who would check in on how things were going. This made things feel a lot less lonely.
Allot Time Each Day to Freak Out
Listen, cry in the shower. Give yourself a few minutes every day to get it out. It's hard, it sucks and holding it all in will eventually cause you to lose it. Be proactive with your emotions by giving into them when you can.
Take Time Out for Meditation
Once you've got the worry and sadness out, regroup. Collect yourself. Put each piece in perspective. Try a meditation app or put on some nature sounds or take a few minutes to pray if that works better for you.
Talk to a Counselor
I know this isn't a financial option for anyone, but if you're able to even do one or two sessions, talking with a therapist can be a fantastic way to guard against the mental and emotional damage of a cancer diagnosis in someone you love.
Find a Creative Outlet
Maybe it's knitting, writing or photography. Whatever it is, expressing yourself creatively is a healing way to channel your nervous energy and to connect with your physical senses.
I became extremely distracted during my mother's cancer treatment and was also taking on more for her which left me busier than I was used to. To stay on top of it all (which, admittedly, I didn't always do a great job with) I learned to set reminders and create lists. Three that have become essential to my routine, even since my mother's recovery are:
- ToDoist This app allows me to add tasks for the day, week or whole month so all I have to do is open it up in the morning to remind myself what I need to accomplish that day.
- Alarmed Great for reminding myself that it was time to change the litter, take my mom's dog out or help her look up her test results.
- Daily Water Yes, reminding myself to drink water has been lifechanging! When you're busy caring for someone else it's easy to forget to take care of yourself even on the most basic level. Having an alarm set to remind me to drink water every hour or so improved my mood, my health and my ability to stay focused on the task at hand - getting through this tough time.
Join a Cancer Forum
BreastCancer.org has many forums for those who've been diagnosed, but they also have this one dedicated to the loved ones and caregivers of those who've been diagnosed. It's an excellent resource and a safe space for those who want to connect.
...you are not alone in this, your mother is not alone in this. Things feel big and scary right now but cancer research and treatments have come a long way in a short time.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Holly Howard
Kathy Henderson from Pa on September 24, 2019:
This is a wonderful article, honest and true to the aftermath of a health scare such as Cancer. You give a beautiful reality to the emotions and needs that go along with this trial. I do hope for perfect healing for your mom. Also continued health for you as well. Thank you for sharing your heart and your truth.