How to Cope When a Family Member Has Breast Cancer: Communication is Key
Families that engage in conversations about cancer have healthier relationships. Research studies show that important dialogues can ease the burden that a cancer diagnosis precipitates, by fostering unity and togetherness and help to reduce feelings of desolation.
Cindy Eastman is no stranger to family disease and trauma – both her mother and sister succumbed to cancer. Yet seeing her own daughter, Annie Musso, with a breast cancer diagnosis was a completely different story.
In 2021, Annie was diagnosed with Stage 2, triple-negative breast cancer, undergoing twelve weeks of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation. In early 2022, following additional tests, it was deemed that Annie needed to have a bilateral mastectomy and she was subsequently declared in remission. But a month later, an MRI showed that the cancer had spread and Annie is currently contending with Stage 4 triple negative metastatic breast cancer.
“It’s a lot to manage emotionally,” Eastman admits, acknowledging the sadness and rage, along with her mama-bear courage. “But when I want to just sink into despair or rail against the unfairness of it all, I also know that I am lucky to have what I have.”
Eastman’s daughter, Annie, lives right down the street, making it easy for spontaneous visits and sleepovers and effortless availability for dog walking and childcare. The mother-daughter duo had always been close, yet Eastman asserts that they share more now than ever. She praises her daughter’s strength. “Annie has been amazingly strong, and very fact-based, science-based. She’s very in charge of her own treatment.”
But when the family discussions stop, and the myriad mixed emotions take center stage, Eastman finds her peace with a pen. An author, blogger, and writing teacher, she’s written about aging and grief. “When I started writing about cancer, Annie decided that she wanted to start writing about it too.” Annie wrote a guest column, and now mother and daughter are writing about the process together, collaborating on a column called Can We Talk About Cancer for the CTInsider, a Connecticut newspaper owned by Hearst Media.
“I’m learning how to do this differently and with help,” says Eastman, “and how to navigate what’s before [us].”
Family members can empower themselves without being overbearing nor helpless, by taking action to manage emotions, quell anxiety, and maintain strong ties. Follow these suggestions to better deal with a cancer diagnosis within your family:
- Arm yourself with information from doctors and other qualified sources to help you understand what is happening. The National Cancer Institute has online booklets regarding understanding treatments, coping with advanced cancer, pain management, nutritional information and more. Cancer Support Community, formerly MyLifeLine, is the largest nonprofit network of cancer support worldwide whose mission is to ensure that anyone impacted by cancer has access to the information and support they need. Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center has a plethora of online information and experts at the ready to answer questions and address concerns.
- Contact organizations either in your community or online that can connect you in conversation with others who have been through similar situations. Cancer Support Community offers highly personalized connections as does Imerman Angels, a person-to-person support community that links cancer fighters, survivors, previvors, and caregivers to a “mentor” who has gone through a similar experience. Family Caregiver Alliance offers a personalized dashboard with resources targeted to your particular situation, while CanCare provides emotional support to the cancer patient as well as their family and friends.
- Talk about it with your family member. Cancer affects the whole family. Make sure you are calm and patient when you start the conversation. Use the word cancer in your conversations so that your family member feels heard and respected, yet find a balance by talking about other things, like their interests and feelings. Don’t be shy about getting professional help: seek out a therapist, your own doctor, a clergy member, or other organizations (see #2).
- Develop good listening skills so that you can hear your family member’s thoughts and feelings without getting reactive. Allow them to express what they need, want, and expect and then get on the same page by being flexible and understanding.
- Offer care and support without words. Body language and eye contact are of utmost importance as they convey the way you feel. Sharing time together in silence is often incredibly therapeutic.
- Do not think you have to have all or any answers. Sometimes simply being there is the greatest comfort of all.
- Be very specific and truthful about the ways that you can support those with cancer. Can you drive them to appointments, do meal prep or cook meals, watch the kids, walk the dog, or do chores? You do not have to do everything so be authentic when you say what you can do. Rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” tell them exactly what you can do.
- Create a self-care toolbox to help you cope and put daily rituals into action that can keep you grounded. Consider meditation, yoga, massage, journaling, meeting friends, finding creative pursuits like painting or playing an instrument, walking out in nature, watching and listening to music that you love. Keep up an exercise routine and eat healthy foods. Surround yourself with positive people, read uplifting books, and listen to inspiring podcasts. Stay healthy and practice your own self-exams and be diligent about screenings.
“People need to talk about cancer more,” Eastman concludes. “If we can share our stories, maybe other people will start their own conversations, says Eastman. “Even if it’s like Did you hear them? They’re talking about everything!” Eastman laughs. “Talking about it, it’s like therapy.”