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Breast Cancer in women

How breast cancer affects families

The reactions of family members tended to vary greatly. Some family members coped better than expected, while others were unexpectedly more upset.

 

Explains that people react and cope in different and often surprising ways.

Explains that people react and cope in different and often surprising ways.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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Some of my family and friends' reactions were not what I expected.

I have a sister who's a nurse who I thought would, because she has clinical experience of it, be quite a strong person and she was very, very upset. Very weepy, very cry-y, you know.

The other sister was much stronger towards me, visibly anyway. Obviously in private people are different.

My dad found it very difficult to talk about the fact that I'd got cancer which at the time I found hard but people's reactions are different.

They have their own way of coping with it and that's something that you have to accept as well - that people cope in different ways and the way they react to you probably isn't what they actually mean to say.

It's them trying to cope on your behalf and give you support in the best way that they can.
 

Some women described the impact of their diagnosis on siblings, and one woman explained how she had to support and reassure family and relatives. Another recalled that her family's reaction was overwhelming and this made her reluctant to talk to them at the time.

 

Explains that her family's reaction was upsetting and she felt reluctant to speak to them at that...

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Explains that her family's reaction was upsetting and she felt reluctant to speak to them at that...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 59
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When I was first diagnosed it was through my, my family actually upset me more than anything because as I said we'd buried my sister two years previous and me taken thus, they couldn't accept it because it upset them and every one of them was on the phone.

They were coming on crying which upset me.

But it takes you a while because as I say I broke my heart.

Every time they come on the phone they were upsetting me and this was on my mind all the time. And in fact I got to the stage I used to say to [name]' "Tell them a lie, tell them I'm lying down." "I don't want to talk to them any more," you know.

And he used to go to the phone and' "Oh, she's lying down. She's got a wee bit of a headache," or something like that. He used to tell them lies because they were upsetting me.
 

One woman explained that she was anxious about telling family about her diagnosis because her sister had previously died of breast cancer. Several women found that, while family members were often shocked and upset by the news of their diagnosis, they were also supportive and helpful following the initial shock. Practical support was often as important as emotional.  

Some women explained that telling their elderly parents was more difficult than telling other family members, and that they did not want to worry them. Elderly parents often found it difficult accepting the news of their children's ill health while they themselves were well. A young woman, whose family had a history of breast cancer, described having to support her mother. Another, who was reluctant to tell her poorly father, described that she had no other option when she bumped into him at the hospital.

 

Describes reassuring her mother who felt that she, not her daughter, ought to have developed...

Describes reassuring her mother who felt that she, not her daughter, ought to have developed...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 18
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I told her, and she just burst into tears.

And I think it was a feeling of guilt more than anything from being away. And she felt like she wasn't there for me.

And I think she also thought that if it was something to do with genetics, she should be the next in line for it, because my grandma had had it, my great grandma had had it, so it was obvious that it was her turn and it seems like it's skipped a generation.

So she felt it should've been her. And I said to her' "Look, you can't say that because we're not even sure it's through the genes that I've got this.

We don't know, there's no one to blame, and I'm certainly sure that I'll never blame anybody because it's nobody's fault. There's nothing you can do it about it. If it happens, you just have to deal with it.

So I think that put her mind at rest a bit.
 
 

Explains that she found it difficult to tell her father about her diagnosis.

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Explains that she found it difficult to tell her father about her diagnosis.

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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The next day, no, the third day, I was going for the blood test. My husband and my daughter were both with me.

We were just walking along talking and I said' "Don't tell Dad and everyone yet. "Slowly, gradually, they'll find out. You see they only worry." And then when I was waiting in the hospital waiting room for my blood test I saw my father there, sitting in the hospital.

He was there for the diabetic clinic, it's just beside, and he was sitting there. And when I saw him sitting there, oh I just felt like crying my heart out, crying out loud.

But I made myself control myself, and I kind of managed to say hello to my dad but I couldn't look at him.You see, I knew that if I saw his face I'd start crying.

And then I went in to have my blood test. And when I went in I said to my husband' "Tell him just a bit but don't tell him in front of me."

Women were often unsure what and how much to tell children, and this depended very much on a child's age. Several women explained that their grown up children were supportive, and often sought out more information for them or accompanied them to hospital appointments.

One woman described her children being angry and reluctant to discuss her illness. Another discussed the strength of her teenage daughters, and how they took more responsibility for household chores after her diagnosis.

 

Explains how her children seemed angry with her being ill and hadn't found a way to talk to her...

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Explains how her children seemed angry with her being ill and hadn't found a way to talk to her...

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 59
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Well they have been - I'm trying to think, I can't think of any one way I'll just have to say about specifics - deeply affected.

But very angry as well, angry that I'm not as I was, terribly angry.

And I think that that was the most difficult bit to cope with is their anger, simply because they couldn't believe it and they wanted me terribly to be well.

My son was very supportive but somehow, he's also doing his A levels, so it was really not a good time for him to be told that, he was absolutely devastated, he burst into tears when he heard and I think he's actually been more aggressive since, as if he's had to defend himself with the aggression.

I don't know whether it's worse for other people in a way I think when you've got cancer yourself you, I feel that you are thinking about it and working with it all the time but they're not.

And so the children they're a worry.

They don't want you to talk about it because it's just so upsetting so you're in a very difficult position because you're not allowed to talk about it or refer to it.

Some women were concerned about their daughters and other female relatives because of their own diagnosis. Those with very young children selectively gave them small amounts of information. Several women stressed the importance of explaining their illness fully to their children in a way they could understand. One of these women described how, having experienced something similar as a child, she was concerned that her son knew the whole story. Many women noted that each child reacted and coped in different ways. Two women with children under seven said they would tell them more about breast cancer when they were able to understand.

 

Explains her concern for other female family members since her own diagnosis.

Explains her concern for other female family members since her own diagnosis.

Age at interview: 76
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
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I mean I've got granddaughters and I must admit that I am inclined to say you know' "You just keep an eye on yourself."

I do to my daughter. I mean my daughter smokes, which annoys me intensely, but it's her choice, not mine.

I mean she knows the problems that could be caused by smoking and all the rest of it, so if she continues to smoke and wants to smoke then that's her choice, not mine.

And it's not my place to say' "You can't."

I've pointed out to her that she really ought to be careful and that, but I mean that's her choice as I say.
 
 

Explains that she told her son the truth about her illness having experienced something similar...

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Explains that she told her son the truth about her illness having experienced something similar...

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 46
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My son is, well he was 12, 11 at the time, he's 12 now, and we had to tell him the truth. He's a smart cookie and if we'd hidden things from him he'd have found out and been resentful. I know this from my own experience, I wasn't told what was wrong with my mum until it was too late, and I kind of resented that.

So I thought well, if we're honest and up-front with him he's got it to deal with from day one rather than finding out later and blaming us that we didn't tell him. And he was wonderful.

He just accepted it and you know' "Well we've got to get you well," and helped and did things around the house that he wouldn't have normally done. And he was scared and it was awful to have him look me in the eye and say' "Are you going to die mummy?" And I said' "Yes but not now," you know. Everybody's got to die, nobody gets out of this life alive. It's a fact of life.

So he had to know and I stand by that. I don't think it's done him any harm knowing rather than not knowing.
 

Some women discussed how their illness had brought the family closer, and one woman felt that her children were now much more understanding and compassionate. Women also discussed the impact of their diagnosis on their partners (see 'Body image').

Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated June 2010.


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