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When Mom Has Cancer

It affects the whole family

by Katherine Easton, LCSW, OSW-C

Wellness image

Perhaps more than any other illness, cancer is truly a family disease. Families face a myriad of complex issues when adjusting to a new diagnosis of cancer. Fear, anger, and guilt are common emotions expressed by both the woman with cancer and her family. How a family learns to cope and adjust to living with cancer will depend on how well the family functioned before the cancer and how well they can communicate honestly and openly with each other about the experience.

After the initial diagnosis and during the treatment period, families and couples are most likely to face some of the greatest challenges. Changes in lifestyles, roles, and routines can create stress in the relationship. Cancer will shift the equilibrium in a family, and this shift may force the family to adapt and change. Families find they must reevaluate their priorities if they are going to be able to cope effectively with the illness. With honest and open communication, families will feel more prepared for the challenges that they may face both during and after treatment.

Cancer is likely to have the greatest impact on marriages and other long-term relationships. By being able to anticipate changes in these relationships, such as role reversals and changes in areas of intimacy and sexuality, a couple will be better equipped to address some of the problems they find themselves confronted with. Partners and spouses may have difficulty being placed in the role of caregiver. For many couples, being a caregiver offers the opportunity to strengthen the relationship and commitment to each other. For others, it may produce a great deal of stress if they lack the ability to communicate honestly and effectively about it.

Cancer will shift the equilibrium in a family, and this shift may force the family to adapt and change.

Author of Article photo

Katherine Easton

Being a mom with cancer also presents a unique set of challenges. The demands of the treatment may make it difficult for some women to take care of their children and adequately fulfill their role as parent. Children are often confused as they see family roles and routines change. They also are affected by the physical changes that mom may go through during treatment. Honest and open sharing about what is happening within the family can offer children the opportunity to explore their own feelings about their mom’s cancer and provide them with reassurance. Parents should help children anticipate the changes that are likely to take place and focus on things that may affect them directly. This will allow them to feel a sense of control about what is happening within the family.

When a woman gets cancer, she recognizes how being able to fulfill her role in family relationships will be critical to her own self-esteem; it is crucial for her to protect and value them. A supportive, functional family can provide her with an overall sense of well-being. Open and honest communication with her family about how she is feeling and what she needs to cope with cancer will help them to help her. Maintaining these healthy family relationships throughout her journey will offer her the love and support she needs to live fully with cancer.

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Katherine Easton is an oncology social worker with Southeastern Gynecologic Oncology in Atlanta, GA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.