Mothers, Daughters, and Cancer

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Not too long after I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), I was talking to a woman who had recently been diagnosed with uterine cancer. When her elderly mother came to see her after the diagnosis, she didn’t say much. She just climbed into bed with her daughter where they cuddled and cried together.

That’s one image we have of mothers — the woman who will hold and comfort us no matter how bad things are. Mothers are supposed to be all-powerful fighters who will do anything to protect their young. But sometimes mothers and daughters get their signals crossed. Sometimes Mom’s vision of what we need differs from ours.

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Bob and Mary Hacken June 19, 1945 Bicester, England.

My mother was a believer in the power of prayer and positive thinking. Her experiences as an Army nurse in World War II taught her to push through trauma without dwelling on sad or painful experiences. She lived a thousand miles away from me when I was diagnosed. Right away we had communication problems about my cancer. She reassured me that everything would be fine. She told me about all her friends who had recovered from cancer. I wasn’t reassured. None of her friends had IBC. I told her I had a different kind of cancer, but it was too scary to tell her the details of my prognosis. I wanted to protect her, but I also wanted her to be as scared as I was. I expected the impossible.

She sent me a copy of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff thinking it would get me into a positive frame of mind. It didn’t.

I told her about chemo—minimizing the worst of it. She told me that everyone at church was praying for my healing.

She called regularly, and I told her only the good things happening in our family’s life.

She sent flowers when I had my mastectomy. Then I had to call her with a dose of reality. The pathology report was something I couldn’t hide. “Mom, the pathology report came back. They found cancer in 16 of my 24 lymph nodes.”

She responded in disbelief, “But we’ve been praying for your complete healing!”

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Mary Hacken learns to use a computer

When I couldn’t travel to be with them for our usual Christmas gathering because of my radiation schedule, my parents flew to Missouri. They were wonderful in many ways during that holiday, but they were clearly upset to see me bald, so in their presence I wore a scarf or my wig. I understand how distressing it must be to see evidence of your child’s life-threatening illness, but their discomfort with “bald me” seemed like a rejection of who I was right then—a very sick person who was facing daunting odds.

The combination of my not always positive attitude, my mother’s prayers, and modern medicine did seem to work. I lived. Years later when I was visiting during a lymphedema flare, my mother touched my bandaged arm and burst into tears. “I hate seeing you still suffering,” she said.

And I forgave her.

Each mother and daughter has her own special dynamic, which cancer can affect. But usually the mother-daughter pattern established before cancer remains whether it is the mother or the daughter who is ill. Mothers are human beings who want the best for their daughters, and illness isn’t likely to change what Mother thinks is best. Accepting our mothers for who they are instead of the idealized mother of myth and Mother’s Day can be difficult. But each of our mothers has special virtues that she has passed along to us, virtues that we should cherish.

My mother taught me how to fold a towel and swing a bat. My mother loved to read, so do I. My mother loved to travel, so do I. My mother wasn’t afraid to leave home alone for nurses’ training when her friends stayed home. She was a mother who taught her three daughters to be independent. She learned to use a computer in her 80s, and her daughters are life-long learners. She had her firm opinions and so do I. If we weren’t always on the same page about how to deal with illness, that’s OK. She was compelled by love to want me to be brave and optimistic, so I try to be.

See more helpful articles:

How Cancer Affects our Family: A Story of Hope

“Comfort In, Dump Out”: The Ring Theory of Knowing What to Say

Telling Older Parents about Your Breast Cancer: How to Deliver the News


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.