Many women find it extremely difficult telling the people around them that they have secondary breast cancer. It may be difficult to explain what secondary breast cancer is, and your news will have an emotional impact on them too. Many women struggle to deal with the emotional responses of others as well as their own during this time.
'At the same time as you need to deal with your diagnosis, your family needs to deal with it as well. There's no easy way of telling them that you have advanced disease and what it is.' -- Nina
Many women with secondary breast cancer worry about their partner's response to their illness. Partners can be as overwhelmed as the woman with secondary breast cancer. They often feel they cannot express their emotions for fear of upsetting the woman they love. Partners often feel they need to be strong and may become distressed as they cannot 'fix' the situation.
Living with a life-limiting illness can either bring couples closer or drive them apart. Emotions are complex for both parties. Intimacy can become difficult due to reduced sexual confidence, a lowered libido and tiredness. Most women find that, although often difficult, speaking openly helps their relationships during this time. Many partners benefit from speaking to someone, such as cancer nurse at the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 or a counsellor.
See the Family and friends page for further information related to male and female partners of women with secondary breast cancer.
For many women, the most distressing thing about their diagnosis is concern for their children. We all want to protect our children from pain and sadness.
It is tempting to think that keeping the diagnosis a secret from children will protect them, but if they find out that you haven't been honest with them they are likely to feel angry and resentful when they do discover the truth.
The best, but hardest, thing is to be honest with them. The page on telling your children has more useful information. The Hope & Hurdles pack explains how a child's age relates to their likely response to cancer in the family and gives some advice on talking to children in different age groups.
It can be very difficult to tell parents about a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer. Depending on their age and circumstances, they may already be coping with their own medical problems and may even be relying on you for help and support.
Parents do not have to be told straight away - it is not an emergency. Some women decide not to tell their parents at all - perhaps because their relationship is complex, or they don't think their parents will cope with the news. You need to do what is right for you.
'I was living in a different state and my mother was very elderly, so I asked my sister to tell her about my diagnosis. I knew how sad and shocked she would be.' -- Becky
Your parents' attitude to cancer may date back many years, or even decades, so it's important to check their level of understanding and let them know about advances in treatments so that they understand what your diagnosis really means.
There is more information about talking to parents in Hope & Hurdles.
Family and friends
Family and friends sometimes respond in unusual ways. You may not always get the response you hoped for when you tell friends you have secondary breast cancer.
Some people may not know what to say or feel afraid of upsetting you. They may not know how you are feeling or whether you want to discuss it. Try to tell them how you feel and what you need from them. You may want to talk about different things with different people.
'Talk about your condition and how you feel openly with friends and family. They will react to your lead. If you are silent, so will they be.' -- Irene
Women find it useful to share BCNA's brochure 'She has secondary breast cancer - how can I support her' with family and friends. It describes secondary breast cancer and some of the feelings that you and your loved ones may be going through. It also offers them ideas on ways they can support you as well as useful resources to help them during this time.
When others say the 'wrong thing'
Often people often have no idea what to say to you for fear of saying 'the wrong thing'. This might seem like they're withdrawing from you, and can be hurtful.
While people generally mean well, some tend to offer unrealistic and sometimes unhelpful opinions, ideas and suggestions that can be frustrating and sometimes even distressing. People might offer women advice on how they should or shouldn't live their life, such as suggesting dramatic changes to diet and lifestyle.
The constant message from others to 'be positive' can be annoying. Those who offer information about the latest treatment or cure may not realise that it is generally not helpful.
'Please don't share every invention and cancer cure you're seen on TV, read in a magazine or newspaper - I don't want to know.' -- Helen
People's responses and reactions are usually driven by their concern about what's going to happen and fearing they might lose you. Being clear with them about how you feel, and the conversations that help and don't help you, can help others know what's appropriate.
- BCNA's brochure 'She has secondary breast cancer - how can I support her' has useful information for partners, family and friends (downloadable from the Support page).
- Your partner can listen to the CD 'When the woman you love has advanced breast cancer' included in your Hope & Hurdles pack. You can also order it online or on 1800 624 973.
- The Inside Story issue 10 (Spring 2008) features articles and personal stories on the effects of secondary breast cancer on partners and others.
- The Beacon issue 44 (Spring 2008) and The Beacon issue 47 (Winter 2009) have articles and personal stories about the effect of breast cancer on partners and those around us.
- The Beacon issue 44 resources list is for supporting partners.
- BCNAs Partners Survey 2008 report includes quotes and tips from women.
- The Beacon issue 50 (Autumn 2010) has articles and personal stories about sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.
- Hope & Hurdles pack includes further information, resources and support for children.
- Family and friends can join our online network if they think that talking to others online and sharing experiences will help.
- The personal stories section includes stories written by partners, family members and friends, and lesbians who have experienced breast cancer.