It might be difficult for you to tell the people around you that you have metastatic breast cancer. It can be difficult to explain what metastatic breast cancer is, and it can also be hard to deal with the emotional responses of others during this time. Yet, despite these difficulties, most people find that speaking openly about their situation helps their relationships 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 people with metastatic breast cancer worry about their partner’s response to their illness. It’s normal for partners to be just as overwhelmed as you. Partners often feel they cannot express their emotions without upsetting the person they love. Many male partners often feel they need to be strong and 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 people. Intimacy can become difficult due to reduced sexual confidence, a lowered libido and tiredness. Most people find that, although difficult, speaking openly helps their relationships during this time. Many partners benefit from speaking to someone, such as cancer nurse at the Cancer Council Information and Support Service on 13 11 20 or a counsellor.
For many people, the most distressing thing about their diagnosis is their concern for their children.
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.
Children also tend to sense when something is wrong and can blame themselves if a clear explanation of the situation isn’t given to them.
Hope & Hurdles 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 your parents about a diagnosis of metastatic 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.
Remember, parents do not have to be told straight away as metastatic breast cancer is not an emergency. Some people 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. The choice is yours and 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. For this reason, it’s important to check their level of understanding and let them know about advances in treatments. This will help them understand what your diagnosis really means.
More information about talking to parents can be found 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 metastatic 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
Many women find it useful to share BCNA’s brochure She has secondary breast cancer: How can I support her (currently being revised) with family and friends. It describes metastatic 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 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’ve 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 you find helpful and unhelpful, can let them understand what’s appropriate.
For more information on this topic, please consider the following resources:
- BCNA’s brochure She has secondary breast cancer: How can I support her has useful information for partners, family and friends.
- Your partner can listen to the CD ‘When the woman you love has advanced breast cancer’ included in Hope & Hurdles. You can also order it online or on 1800 624 973
- Find out what palliative care can do for you or for someone you love by using the Palliative Care Toolkit.
- BCNA’s Partners Survey 2008 report includes quotes and tips from women.
- Hope & Hurdles includes more 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 who have experienced breast cancer.