How Cancer Affects Our Family - A Story of Hope

Patient Expert
Phyllis Johnson

On our 30th wedding anniversary in September 1998, I was in chemotherapy. To be honest, I don’t remember what we did. I was probably too exhausted and queasy to have much of a celebration. But we wanted a special recognition of this milestone anniversary, so we talked to a travel agent to plan a special anniversary trip for March 1999. That would be my spring break from teaching, and we hoped that I would be recovered from treatment. My husband and I decided to go to Hawaii despite the pressure it would place on our budget. We didn’t know how many other anniversaries there would be. We were in the “seize-the-moment” mood that many people experience when confronted by life-threatening illness.

From February, 1998, when I had my first symptom of inflammatory breast cancer until Jan. 15, 1999, when I had my last radiation treatment, our lives were filled with stress and fear. Our daughter was a junior in college, and our son was a junior in high school. My husband and I had both started new jobs in a city far away from our support base of family and friends.

A life-threatening illness creates a jumble of emotions as family members grieve. The classic denial, depression, anger, bargaining, acceptance cycle of mourning is happening to each person, but not at the same rate. Also the cycle is more messy than a diagram in a self-help book. New events occur in the course of the illness, and the cycle starts over. Not everyone proceeds in the same order. Sometimes our children were in denial when I wanted them to acknowledge how sick I was. We all had our moments of anger, and we didn’t always direct it at the villain — cancer.

My husband and I tended to take turns holding the fear at bay. One day it might be my turn to reassure him that all would be fine. The next he held me and rubbed my back while I sobbed. My prognosis was too grim to give our children fake smiles and promises. When they asked if I would die, I told them, “I promise I will do everything I can to stay alive.”

The children stepped up. Our daughter went with me to choose a wig. One day our son drove me to the ER and waited with me until his dad could get there to take over. We got through that year, and by March my husband and I were in Maui watching rainbows everywhere.

One morning we went snorkeling. I had never done that before. As I floated weightless on the surface of the clear water, brightly colored fish flashed by. I was filled with such a sense of joy and awe. I was ALIVE I was in a new adventure in a spectacular place. Whether I lived another year or another five years, I had this moment.

Many cancer patients talk about that wondrous gratitude for life that fills them after cancer. Some people maintain it longer than others. It’s easy to let the daily nuisances of life sap away that joy, especially when cancer keeps on intruding. Chemotherapy-induced neuropathy and lymphedema keep reminding me of my treatments. It took more than five years before I believed that I might live to be an old lady.

In our family we don’t talk out loud very much about what we went through, but cancer has had a profound effect on us. I watch our adult children make decisions to take risks and start new ventures NOW. They know that tomorrow is not promised.

I like to think that our children would have grown up to be compassionate people without their mom having cancer. But I believe they are more able to reach out to hurting people because they remember what it is like to worry and grieve.

Every milestone moment takes on a special poignancy. We are all aware that I might not have been there for the graduations, the weddings, the births of grandchildren. Sometimes when we cry at a wedding or a birth, the tears are mostly of joy that we have all survived to live in this special moment, but there are some tears of pain mixed in too.

We cherish each moment. We hug each other tight.

More about Cancer and Family Relationships:

Honoring Fathers of Breast Cancer Patients

Recognizing the Men Who Take Care of Women with Breast Cancer

Set Goals to Survive Breast Cancer

Cancer, Anger, Fear and Love


Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer survivor who serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. She stays current on cancer information through attendance at conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. A retired teacher, she has been writing about cancer issues at HealthCentral since 2007.