How breast cancer can impact the family

A breast cancer diagnosis can have a major impact on the whole family. Pip Bell, a breast cancer nurse with the McGrath Foundation shares her insights on how families can cope through this difficult time.

Discussing breast cancer can be a hard and emotionally draining time and it’s almost certain to affect every family member. The emotions that occur within a family can range from sadness to anger, frustration to denial about what has happened to them.

It’s a time when communication and talking honestly is important. How well the family adjusts can affect how well the person being treated for breast cancer copes.

Changes to the family dynamic

If the person living with breast cancer is a mother of children living at home, the whole family unit is usually stressed. It’s not uncommon for their partner to work all day and perhaps visit her in hospital at night. To then go home and organise dinner, chores, school activities and prepare for the next day is often time consuming and tiring. This cycle repeats itself and can wear the family down. 

If she’s at home, a mother with breast cancer may feel as if she must keep going normally and may push her recovery by trying to keep ongoing commitments, which can use up all her spare energy. 
People may find that the relationship between themselves and their children changes and children can respond in many different ways depending on their age and character. 

Parents are often distraught about their daughter’s breast cancer and may come to live with the family to help out so that the partner can concentrate on their work. This can bring challenges with different generations now living together, when even small things may be done in different ways from what the family is used to. 
These experiences are normal for families affected by breast cancer and it’s important not to label yourself as ‘not coping’. 

I recommend families try to:
  • Make sure children have realistic expectations about their mother’s energy levels, how involved she can be and where she may need their help and understanding.
  • Accept offers of help. Having someone else look after school drop offs, or delivering meals to the family can help to relieve a lot of pressure.
  • Try to keep life at home as normal as possible.
  • Do not commit to any new activities until you know you have the time and energy for them.
  • Try to stay connected and continue doing things that you enjoy as a family. 
  • Talk to each other honestly and openly about fears and feelings. Suggest outside counselling for families. 
  • It is important to have family conferences and regular updates. It also provides an opportunity for all family members to voice their concerns, fears or share their thoughts. 
  • Choose a support person who can disseminate information to the broader family or family friends who care and wish to help.

How a diagnosis can impact children

Young children may become clingy and might not want to leave the house or go to school. Sometimes young children may think they’ve somehow caused the cancer by their actions or behaviour. Other children at school can say upsetting things. Sometimes teenagers are frightened and scared about what the diagnosis means for them and sometimes they withdraw from the family or the home. Daughters can worry about their own risk of developing breast cancer. Children’s school work can suffer and their academic performance may decline. They may not sleep well from intrusive, unwanted and worrying thoughts.

I recommend:
  • When talking with children, remember to pitch the conversation at their level.
  • Try to be tolerant if a child’s behaviour deteriorates. They might be frightened, sad or anxious about what’s happening. Remember, they are stressed too and they don’t have advanced coping skills yet. They may be scared of losing their other parent too.
  • Children overhear conversations, so be aware of this and be mindful of where they are in the house. Always be honest because this builds resilience and makes coping easier in the long run. This way, all family members know what’s happening to them and they won’t become caught up in a constant worry trap due to lack of trust.
  • Inform the school of the current situation and ongoing developments. 
  • Asking children to do odd jobs around the house can help them feel like they are making a difference in a good way.
  • Be mindful not to set unrealistic expectations. Accepting kids’ best efforts will keep them motivated. Always thank the children and acknowledge they are doing their best to help.
  • Explore the idea of individual or group counselling. CanTeen, Kids Helpline and MensLine all have helpful support services for families.

Financial pressure on families

There is no question a breast cancer diagnosis brings financial strain. There might be a loss of income if the person being treated and/or their partner has to take time off. There is also the cost of treatments, medications and possible outsourcing of some of the day-to-day housework. 

Financial stress can cause bickering, arguments, resentment, and anger directed and misdirected at the illness, other people and things - especially if outcomes have turned out less favourably than what was hoped for.
My advice to families is to:
  • Make appointments to speak with the bank to help manage finances and develop an action plan.
  • Consider speaking to your superannuation fund to enquire about compassionate clauses. 
  • Enquire about income protection.
  • Investigate the Medicare safety net.
  • Speak to your breast cancer nurse, GP or counsellor who may be aware of financial assistance available. 
At Bupa, we’ve teamed up with the McGrath Foundation to support breast cancer awareness and the work of McGrath Breast Care Nurses. 
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