Communicating with Your Mother About Her Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide July 06, 2007
  • “Hi Mom, how are you?”

    When your mom has breast cancer, those innocent words become a ticking time bomb. Rather than a casual greeting, it’s a request: tell me what’s going on with your cancer. What are the doctors saying? Is it serious? Are you going to die? Frustratingly, instead of giving you any real info., your mom probably just tells you everything’s fine. “Yeah, I’m doing OK. A little tired, but fine.” Oh, REALLY, Mom? Bet you could be lying on a bed of hot coals and you’d tell me you were “fine, just a bit warm.”

    When it comes to her health, why is it so hard to dig information out of your mother? I mean, aren’t you willing to share the details of every virus and sprained ankle and bronchitis attack with her, when she asks how YOU are? Why won’t she tell you how she REALLY feels?

    Listen. I’m a mom, and I have breast cancer. Let me clue you in on what’s going on with your mother, and then give you some coping strategies, some ways to get her to open up with you a little.

    First, understand that the default emotion of your mother is love: love for YOU. Like it or not, that physical bond between you, forged before you were born, will never really disappear as far as she’s concerned. You will ALWAYS be her “baby,” her child. She may deign to think of you as her adult child, but that’s as far as she’ll go. When she sees you now, she also sees the baby you, the toddler you, the Little League you and junior prom you and college grad you… a walking album of snapshots, layers on top of layers.

    When you ask her how she feels, there’s no telling whom she answers: the grownup wage-earner, a recalcitrant teenager, or her innocent kindergartner. She’s going to tell the grownup a lot more than she would the kindergartner. So it helps to try to nudge her into the right frame of mind. When you call or visit and want to find out about her cancer, act like an adult, not a kid. Don’t sound scared; be concerned, but matter-of-fact. And bone up on your cancer facts a bit; this site is a great place for a self-tutorial on breast cancer. Ask informed questions: Did you have your biopsy yet? How big was the tumor? Has it spread to your lymph nodes? She’ll be more likely to answer specific questions than to elaborate on a more nebulous “How are you doing?”

    Second, do you and your mother have a collegial relationship? Have you gotten past “mother-child” to enjoy one another as fellow adults? If so, it’s more likely she’ll share details of her health with you. The more she sees you as an adult, someone with the maturity to cope with a difficult situation, the more likely she is to share with you. You may be tempted to curl up into a ball and put your head in her lap (figuratively, or literally!), looking for the comfort she has always been able to give you in any difficult situation. But this time, SHE’S the difficult situation, and she knows it. She feels guilty enough; don’t make her feel worse by reminding her that you’re “her baby” and you’re unhappy.

  • Third, know this: if the default emotion of any mother is love, the default impulse is protection. From the moment she first held you in her arms, your mom has been trying to protect you: from diaper rash, speeding cars, bullies, the chickenpox, heartbreak, disappointment… she wants to shield you from the world. Now that she has cancer, that hasn’t changed. She still wants to protect you: in this case, from the pain and worry she’s going through herself. And the best way to keep you from sharing her pain is to hide it from you. Which she will. Unless you show her you’re strong enough to share it with her.

    Be upbeat; stay positive; tell your mom you love her, and that you’ll do anything to help her through this. Even though you’re consumed by fear, now’s not the time to show it. Once she’s through treatment and feeling better is time enough to share those feelings with her. But for now–be strong, be loving, and keep asking questions. Little by little, your mom will let you into her cancer life.