Our Friends Answer: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Breast Cancer

By on May 8th, 2015 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

Mother’s Day is this weekend in the U.S. If you were diagnosed with breast cancer, you might be thinking about the role your mother or daughter played while you were going through diagnosis and treatment.

This week, we asked our Facebook friends, “Was there something your mother or daughter did or said that made a big impact during your experience?”

You answered:

“While breastfeeding my 3-month-old I found a lump. It was cancer & I had a double mastectomy & reconstruction surgery. So if it weren’t for my daughter & breastfeeding her I would have never found it at stage 2 & it’s aggressive! My daughter is my lifesaver! And she just turned 6 today!!!”

“My mom was my LIFESAVER during my treatment (I was 49). She was there for every appointment and there every time I woke up from anesthesia. She was the ultimate cheerleader but able to just listen when I just wanted to cry.”

“I lost my parents when I was a young child, but my son was wonderfully supportive.”

“My mother has been gone for 25 years. But my daughter-in-law who had gone through colon cancer told me it was all doable, no matter what treatments were necessary. She was so positive through surgery and chemo that I followed her lead. Being positive is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.”

“I would not be where I am right now if it weren’t for the support of my mom during the 4 cancer surgeries. Both my parents attended multiple meetings with me. My mom was by side the entire time to support me, my husband and my daughter.”

“She knows telepathically when homemade brownies are needed to brighten my spirits! But overall she doesn’t want to know the details and probably thinks she will go before I do (understandably that would be her preference).”

“God Bless my Mother! She took a leave of absence from work to take care of me. Unconditional love of a mother can’t be measured. Thank you mom! Love you with all my heart.”

“My mother died many years ago but when I was going through other things with my health she said one day, ‘You can lay here and cry over what if’s and could have’s, or you can get your behind out of bed and make a difference in your life, get out and live for yourself not everyone else.'”

But sometimes, mothers have a hard time responding to cancer in the ways we really need. What if your mom didn’t seem to show much support? As some of you put it, “She was very negative” or “She made it all about her.”

Tamara Shulman, Ph.D., FAACP, a clinical psychologist in New York City, works with families facing serious illness. “Some mothers are better than others at nurturing young children, let alone grown daughters who are perceived as being independent. There are also mothers who cope with their own anxiety about their daughter’s cancer by avoiding it. They may withdraw, or help with children and tasks, but be emotionally unavailable to their daughter. This disturbing reaction is not so uncommon,” Dr. Shulman says.

“Most mothers are frightened and upset by their daughter’s serious illness and not all are equipped to cope with their own feelings adequately,” she continues. “They may be both loving and very frightened and avoid contact. It is pretty hard for the patient to be the one who reaches out to connect, yet this can sometimes be helpful in the long run, emotionally.”

Sage Bolte, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.C.S.W., O.S.W.-C., director of Life with Cancer, Inova Cancer Services in Northern Virginia, specializes in the effects of cancer on relationships. “It is so tough when the people we look to for support fall short or can’t seem to ‘show up’ for us when we need them the most,” she says.

“When a mother is not able to show support during a cancer diagnosis, it may not be the first time a daughter has experienced this kind of disappointment — and she may have hoped that the cancer would make it different. A daughter might feel that of all the people, her mom would be able to be there for her. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t always change the people around us and their behaviors,” Dr. Bolte says.

“It is another loss for many daughters when this happens, and they have the right to be angry or grieve,” she continues. “They also have the opportunity to put people around them who can ‘show up’ for them and support them. Their mom may not be able to be there for them emotionally or in other ways, but maybe their mom could pick the kids up, or grab groceries, or do something else that is within what they are capable of doing. And, if not, again, there is an opportunity to put people around them who can provide them with the emotional and practical support they need and recognize that their mom is not able to be part of that circle,” Dr. Bolte says.

Dr. Shulman agrees with finding other ways your mother might be able to offer support. “It can help to have clear communication about feelings at this difficult time. Talking with your mother about what you are going through and what you need can be important. It may help to ask your mother how she is able to help you. Can she come to chemo treatments or will she be frightened and upsetting to you? Can she help with your children? Is cooking meals something she is good at? Exploring this may lead to making choices about what will really work in a particular mother-daughter relationship. It can help to accept what your mother can offer and find support from others — friends, partners, family members — in the areas where your mother cannot be supportive.”

Dr. Shulman continues, “The experience of having breast cancer evokes a wish to be mothered in a good way, and it is upsetting and disappointing when this does not happen. Mother’s Day stirs up lots of feelings about mothering and being mothered. Allow yourself to have those feelings. But also inwardly explore how you might change things that are hurtful, and find ways to feel better about what you cannot change. Take care of yourself emotionally as well as physically through this very challenging experience.”

Claire Nixon, Editorial Director — Claire directs a team of writers, researchers, content managers, and physicians through the creation of high-integrity web content. She brings 20 years of experience in health communications and journalism to the Breastcancer.org team, as well as the lens of the patient – she was treated for breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2012. In her off-time, Claire enjoys creative writing, independent films, meditation, and the ocean.

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