Family Life After Breast Cancer
Breast cancer doesn’t just affect the woman who’s diagnosed. Here’s how to help your family cope.
Breast cancer is a family affair. While only one member of the family actually goes through surgery and treatment, everyone has to deal with tough emotional challenges and lifestyle changes. We talked to three women who are wives and mothers as well as breast cancer survivors. Here are their first-hand insights into issues many women face when returning to family life after breast cancer surgery.
In Sickness and In Health
In 1997, Joni Greene was a 38-year-old, single mother of four when she met a terrific man. Seven months later, they were married. And seven months after that, she found a lump in her breast that led to a bilateral mastectomy. Though she was thrilled with her new family, she didn’t expect her married life to include breast cancer. Eventually, Joni also went through chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and radiation as well as several other surgeries, including brain surgery to remove a tumor later found there.
It’s hard enough to mix five children, including her husband’s grown daughter, into a newly blended family. It’s a herculean task when a serious illness complicates the picture right away. But that’s exactly what Joni and her husband, Jim, did when Joni refocused on family life after breast cancer. In fact, they have since adopted a sixth child, the daughter of Jim’s niece who died in 2000 of Hodgkin’s disease. Today, Joni has been in remission for over a year, and she is happily raising her family and working with autistic preschoolers as a teaching assistant.
Yet despite the happy ending, Joni doesn’t pretend that family life since breast cancer has always been a fairy tale. “My husband is a good man, and he was there for me no matter what,” says Joni. “But communication was hard at first, because Jim is naturally quiet. At the same time, I was scared to approach him about how he felt. And I guess I was so wrapped up in me, me, me for a while that I didn’t realize how much he was hurting, too.”
Joni credits Jim’s religious faith with helping carry him through the crisis. In addition, Joni made a conscious effort to overcome her self-doubts while Jim pushed to get past his natural reticence. Says Joni, “Now we can talk comfortably about the cancer and our feelings.”
Physical intimacy was another hurdle for the newlyweds to cross, that we don’t always associate with family life after breast cancer but does make a difference. “After the surgery, I had to let my husband know I had no feeling in my chest,” says Joni. “Stimulation there had been my biggest turn-on before losing both breasts. But we make up for it by cuddling, kissing, and finding other ways to be close.”
Today Gerry Stacy is a hotline counselor for a breast cancer charity. Ten years ago, however, she was the 45-year-old mother of a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son — a family full of life — when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Gerry says many of her memories from around that time are lost in a haze of shock and disbelief. But she has one clear recollection from the day of her diagnosis: “My son asked me, ‘Are you going to die?'” Of course, that was the number one question on her mind and her husband’s, too. Yet Gerry felt her young son needed reassurance, not grown-up doubts, so she found the strength to offer it. “I told him I really believed everything was going to be okay. I said I felt God didn’t want me yet.”
The impact on family life of a breast cancer diagnosis is sometimes more nuanced than we realize. To further help her children cope, Gerry took them to a support group for the children of cancer patients. It was there she learned about the dark cloud looming in her daughter’s mind. Says Gerry, “My daughter knew my mother had died of breast cancer, and now I had been diagnosed. She made the statement that she knew she was going to get it, too.” Once again, Gerry felt reassurance was the first order of business. “I told her that just because I had the disease didn’t mean that she would.” Once the initial crisis had passed, there was time to discuss risk factors and the need for extra vigilance.
Jackie Moll is a 65-year-old grandmother now, and the busy co-owner of a post-mastectomy lingerie boutique. Twenty-two years ago, though, she was the 43-year-old mother of four when she underwent a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, radiation and, ultimately, another mastectomy.
During and after her breast cancer, Jackie experienced an aspect of family life she had never known before. Suddenly, the family caregiver had to learn to receive some loving care in return. “My husband and the kids, who were 7 to 14, banded together to take care of me,” Jackie says. “They cleaned the house and made their own breakfasts in the morning. And my friends and neighbors were wonderful. I never went to a single treatment where I didn’t have people there with me.”
Before long, Jackie was back at the helm of her bustling household. She says, “Family life after breast cancer was just as hectic as before – with kids, school, housework, and everything else. I had to get well quick.” But one key to her success was knowing how to accept help graciously when she needed it, especially during the difficult days of chemotherapy and radiation. Her advice to other women undergoing breast cancer treatment: “Be open with people about what you need.” And let those who love you lend a hand when necessary with cooking, cleaning, shopping, child care, and the like. You’ll feel better—and so will they.