Put Yourself First After Being Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
A new study, presented Monday at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Boston, revealed what most of us already know: women never stop being concerned about their friends and family, even while they themselves are facing a difficult life challenge.
The study examined a mix of racially diverse San Francisco-area women who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, asking the women the details of how they told their loved ones they had cancer: under what circumstances, how it felt, their motivations in how they timed the delivery of the message. And the takeaway was clear: “Even when women are facing a breast cancer diagnosis, they are still concerned about caring for everyone else, especially the emotions of others,” said study author Grace J. Yoo of San Fancisco State University’s Biobehavioral Research Center. “Women are socialized to care about others,” she added.
The study points out the paradox the woman with newly diagnosed breast cancer faces. Perceiving herself as her family’s primary caregiver, the keeper of the family’s emotions, she finds herself hard-pressed to upset that emotional equilibrium with the devastating news of her cancer. In order to prepare her loved ones for what lies ahead, she must first shock them with terrible news; and no woman enjoys delivering that blow to her family.
The study concluded that women going through the initial shock of a breast cancer diagnosis would fare better if they cut themselves some slack. “It’s a time they should be caring about themselves, what decisions they should be making about breast cancer. They shouldn’t emotionally burn themselves out by caring for other’s emotions,” concluded Yoo.
Well… easier said than done. We’re definitely “socialized” to care for others. And I’m not sure it’s even socialization that’s the main impetus for this; I think it may be genetic. We’re born to love, to care for, to support. I believe most of us enjoy that role. It’s such a central part of us that, when we’re threatened with the loss of our status as primary caregiver, we’re overwhelmed with guilt, anger, sadness, and a sense of failure.
Who among us didn’t agonize over how to tell at least one family member “the news,” be it mother, significant other, or child? I’m sure most of us spent much more time stressing over that dreaded conversation than worrying about our own care.
One way or another, we all get through that difficult few weeks just after diagnosis, those days when cancer is the elephant in the corner, occupying our minds and hearts 24/7. Time passes; the news is shared; and that sharing seems to lighten the burden. Many of us are amazed by the outpouring of support we receive, some of it from unexpected sources. And gradually—maybe—we climb down off the pedestal for awhile; we let someone else take a turn as caregiver.
Thus do we learn a critical lesson very early in treatment: it’s OK to accept help. Heck, it’s even OK to ask for it. “I need” and “I want” aren’t signs of weakness. They’re simply an admission that we’re finally ready to receive the same love and care that we lavish so regularly on those around us.