Awareness is Strength: Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – a fact you must know by now, what with pink appearing everywhere from the candy aisle at the supermarket to professional football (pink cleats, anyone?)

    But did you know October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month? It’s estimated one in four women will experience domestic violence of some kind – physical, emotional, economic, sexual, or psychological – during her lifetime.

    Sadly, women undergoing breast cancer treatment aren’t immune to this statistic. Are you being abused – or do you know someone who is? What can you do about it?

    “Domestic violence? Not me.”

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    It just sounds so… violent, doesn’t it? When you hear the words, you probably think of a man beating his wife; a bruised face, broken bones.

    A restraining order from the police.

    But domestic violence takes many shapes. And often it doesn’t fit our inner definition of the word “violence.”

    It can be as quiet and subtle as a whispered word: “No.”

    No, you can’t have money to get your hair done. No, I won’t let you go to the movies with your so-called best friend Melissa; she’s a jerk. No, you’re not taking that part-time job at the library; I want you home with the kids.

    Any time your partner seeks to control you in a way you don’t want to be controlled – that’s domestic violence (a.k.a. domestic abuse). S/he doesn’t have to lift a finger against you. Sometimes words do the job; sometimes a bank account.

    And sometimes, the abuse isn’t even directed at you, but at your children – because the abuser knows injuring your kids is even more painful than hurting you directly.

    Being diagnosed with breast cancer can worsen an already abusive situation. If control of the purse strings is being used to wield power, then it would make sense, in the abuser’s mind, to withhold funds for the small touches that make cancer treatment bearable (a wig, special underwear), if not for the treatment itself.

    If a woman loses her job or cuts back work hours due to cancer, she may be made to feel weak by her abuser.

    The abuser may lay a guilt trip on the survivor, just while she’s at her lowest, both physically and emotionally: “Wimp. I know plenty of people who have worse cancer than you and work right through it. You just lie around all day anyway. You might as well be out there earning your keep.”

    And what about the abuser who focuses on “womanly appeal,” forcing his or her partner to wear “sexy” clothes – both in bed, and out of it?

    Do you think being bald and looking like death warmed over is going to satisfy this person’s desire to control his or her partner’s looks? On the contrary, it’ll probably provoke fits of rage – perhaps leading to physical abuse.

    Breast cancer puts stress on the whole family, not just the woman undergoing treatment. Any cracks in a normal relationship can widen into rifts that threaten to engulf the whole family.


    Sometimes the healthy partner just can’t handle the whole experience, and leaves.

  • But most times, unfortunately – s/he stays.

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    In an abusive relationship, desertion is less likely to happen; the abuser uses his partner’s weakness as a way to ratchet up the level and frequency of abuse. The victim can literally no longer fight back.

    If you’re waging a war on two fronts – cancer, and an abusive partner – it may feel like your world is coming to an end. And perhaps, sometimes, you wish it would.

    But there’s help for you out there – whether the violence you face is physical, emotional, or financial. 

    If you’re suffering from abuse of any kind, breast cancer may be the impetus you need to get help. When you’re at the hospital for treatment, ask to speak to a social worker privately, without your partner being made aware of your request. Social workers are trained in dealing with all kinds of abuse, and can help you take the steps you’ve been afraid or unwilling to take.

    If you’re more comfortable seeking information online, The Avon Foundation for Women, founded over 50 years ago, is dedicated to improving and saving women’s lives. Avon is active on three fronts: breast cancer; domestic violence; and emergency and disaster relief. Through its various fundraising walks, Avon has raised and donated over $800 million to help women in crisis worldwide.

    Avon’s Web site has links to a number of resources for abused women, teens, and children. A chief link is to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which includes a “quick escape” button – click on the button if your abuser enters the room suddenly, and the Web page will be replaced by a simple Google home page.

    Abuse and violence can ruin your life. You’re almost certainly being treated to rid yourself of cancer; why not take steps to rid yourself of an abusive relationship at the same time?

    The life you save may be your own.


    Read more posts about domestic violence, and how to deal with it.

Published On: October 01, 2011