Ask the Expert: Keeping Relationships Strong After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

October 15, 2019

You’re the one with breast cancer. But on top of worrying about your health, you may worry how the disease will affect your relationships – with your romantic partner, your parents, kids, friends and co-workers.

Nobody understands this better than people who have experienced it themselves. Here, a panel of women diagnosed with different stages of breast cancer, including metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer, answered your questions about keeping relationships strong after a breast cancer diagnosisinfo-icon.

Meet the Panelists:

Jenny Burkholder, of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. She was diagnosed in 2012 with Stageinfo-icon IIb, hormone receptorinfo-icon-positive breast cancer. At the time, she was married and 40 years old, and her daughters were ages 3 and 6. Jenny is married with two daughters. She teaches English and writes.

Yolanda Scarborough, of Detroit, Michigan. She was diagnosed with stage Ib breast cancerinfo-icon at age 38. She's married with six children. She works as a coordinator at the Detroit Food Academy. 

Chris Heuple, of Arlington, Virginia. She was diagnosed in December 2013, at age 71, with stage I, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Chris and her partner, David, have three adult children and several grandchildren. Chris is retired.

Stephanie Landis, of Wilmington, Illinois. She was diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancerinfo-icon in 2012, at age 34. In 2015, she was diagnosed with metastatic disease. Stephanie is married and has a strong support team in her parents and siblings. 

Remember: We cannot provide diagnoses, medical consultations or specific treatment recommendations. This service is designed for educational and informational purposes only. The information is general in nature. For specific healthcare questions or concerns, consult your healthcare providerinfo-icon because treatment varies with individual circumstances. The content is not intended in any way to substitute for professional counselinginfo-icon or medical advice.

My husband and I disagree about how much we should tell our children (a 5-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old) about my illness. My instinct is to tell them the minimum I feel they need to know, but my husband speaks very freely with them about what’s going on. How do you deal with having two very different parenting styles when something as serious as cancer is involved?

Jenny: I hear that what you’re wrestling with is twofold: what to tell your kids about your diagnosisinfo-icon and how to get on the same page with your husband.

These are challenging issues when you're faced with a cancer diagnosis. In terms of parenting on the same page, it’s important to communicate to your husband about how you are feeling, not only about the diagnosis but also about how you are seeing your relationship at this moment. His feelings are important, too, so you may need to find some space and time to be able to discuss this in depth. A weekly date night? A regular walk or private conversation? We have two girls, so I know that I have to plan quiet and private time with my husband just like I would plan a doctor’s visit or haircut.

In terms of talking with your children, LBBC has a great resource. This will give you some ideas on what to tell your kids and why telling your kids is important. When I was diagnosed, my girls were 3 and 6. It was difficult to know what to say, so I consulted How to Help Children Through A Parent’s Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue. I found it a helpful resource. Ultimately, you have to do what feels right for you. Remember, your children and husband care deeply for you, and they want you to feel supported and loved.

Stephanie: It's important to compromise but I can't say it's easy. I think we all struggle with this. When you feel so strongly about something, it's hard to really hear someone who has a different opinion. I know I am especially hard headed and am used to getting my way. For me, I know my children love and respect my husband. We have two different approaches and I often find myself frustrated with his parenting choices. When it comes down to results, the kids respond to us both and I try to give him his space, but  in return I expect him to hear me too.       

My husband has really stepped up to take care of me since I was diagnosed, and that means so much to me. But sometimes I feel like he’s treating me like a porcelain doll who he’s constantly worried he will accidentally hurt or say the wrong thing to, rather than a person. I’ve tried telling him he doesn’t need to treat me with kid gloves, but nothing has changed. Do you have any advice?

Jenny: What I hear you saying is that now that you have been diagnosed, your husband is no longer treating you like his strong wife, but rather like somebody that needs to be coddled and fixed. Your husband cares deeply for you and perhaps his treatment of you is his own fear of losing you. Have you talked with him about his fears or concerns? I know you have told him your truth, which is great. I love that you are able to advocate for yourself. Maybe now, it’s time for him to articulate why he is acting in this way. Maybe then, once he is able to hear his own issues, he will be able to focus on hearing what you’re saying.

Chris: Do you know why he is so fearful of losing or hurting you? Is he fully aware of all doctor reports and of your prognosisinfo-icon?  Talk with him about his fears. Ask "Why are you so afraid?" Ask him to go to breast cancer (or cancer in general) support groups with you to hear about others' fears and how they are handling those fears. You could also try doing guided meditation together. We all come to grips with reality at different rates and you supporting him as he expresses his fears will help him to let go and allow you both to grow.  If this doesn't work, I would recommend professional counselinginfo-icon.

Since I was diagnosed, it seems like people at work don’t expect as much from me and aren’t willing to give me the same kinds of tough assignments I received before I was sick. I appreciate them being understanding when I need to leave for a doctor’s appointment or take a day off, but I don’t want them thinking I’m less capable than I was before. What can I do?

Jenny: This can be challenging, and what I hear you saying is that now that you have been diagnosed, your co-workers are seeing you only as a cancer patient, not as a valuable and able co-worker. When I came back to work, I was still in chemo and feeling awful. I felt like I had to prove to others that I wasn’t just a cancer patient. I realized, though, that I didn’t have to do this. I had to give myself permission to be fine with being treated differently. I have been at my job for a long time and will continue to be here, so I had to have faith in my colleagues. I knew eventually they would see me for me and not as a cancer patient. Another way to approach this is to talk directly with your co-workers. Let them know how their treatment makes you feel. This can be difficult, but I know you are capable and able to share your truth with them. 

Chris: Ask your boss for more challenging work and then tell him or her about your sense that you're getting less challenging work since your diagnosisinfo-icon. Open the conversation – your instinct may be on target or there may be another reason for what's going on. Try not to assume. Bring the question up to the right person and include information about the number of hours you will continue to need off for scheduled appointments each week.

Stephanie: First, make sure you are absolutely ready to take on more. I was so eager to get back to my “normal" routine that I ended up overcommitting and became completely overwhelmed. If you are sure you are ready, ease yourself into it. Ask for them to slowly increase your workload and establish the goal of working at the level you were before by the end of a certain time frame. It will be a good way for you to slowly regain the confidence of your co-workers. You will also give yourself time to get ready for those tough assignments.  

When I talk to friends and acquaintances about my illness, I sometimes feel like I’m making them uncomfortable, and then I end up comforting them! Have you experienced this feeling, and do you have any advice?

Jenny: Telling friends can be challenging because you never know how they’re going to react. Some want to be helpful and there for you while others cannot process their own grief, surprise, or sadness, so you wind up comforting them, like you said. I have learned that my truth is my truth. There is no way I can go back to not having cancer and when I came to terms with that, it became easier to tell people. I cannot control cancer or other people, so I had to practice being able to say what I needed to say and just let it be. It’s not easy, and you may find that you’re comforting other people more than you would like to. One helpful way for me to think about it was that what they are expressing is that their deep love and feelings for me are rolled into fear and confusion. Once I was able to see this, I felt better about being able to say directly to them, "I know you’re confused and sad, and so am I. We cannot change the diagnosisinfo-icon, so maybe we can help each other to feel supported and loved." 

Yolanda: When I told someone that I was diagnosed with breast cancer I would get one of two responses. The first response was the person breaking down and me having to  comfort them, and the second response  was to tell me about a relative or friend of theirs who had passed on. I was not expecting either response. Looking back I now understand the initial response of shock. People don't know what to say and they sometimes have no clue of our needs. I've realized that family and friends can only help us if we are completely honest about our needs.

Chris: If you sense, your friends are uncomfortable, ask them if they want regular updates and let them know you have other sources of support in addition to them. Not everyone wants to talk about their friends' cancer and sometimes I need friends that let me forget about it when I am in their company. Opening up a dialogue with them is freeing and considers everyone's feelings.  

Stephanie: We need to remember our family and close friends sometimes need comforting too, but distant friends and acquaintances do not. It may be harsh, but you are going through enough right now. It isn't your job to walk on eggshells for someone who is just curious, asks a question and then gets uncomfortable!

Were you surprised by any friends’ or relatives’ lack of support after you were diagnosed? I feel like I’m losing touch with some people who I thought would have been there for me.

Yolanda: Yes, I was very surprised with my family's lack of support and understanding. As far as losing touch with those who you thought would support you, I wish I could say it didn't happen but it does and it hurts like the dickens. My husband withdrew from me during my treatment. He was afraid. I was afraid. You have to decide if you are strong enough to continue in those relationships. You must confront those who are worth the confrontation and tell them how you feel. This is your journey. Walk it the way you feel comfortable, even if that means feeling selfish. This is your time to heal and get better. 

Chris: The best thing is to ask if your cancer makes them uncomfortable, and if it does, be sure to break down your needs and wants and ask them what they can do. They may be able to handle picking up groceries for you and nothing more. If they are reliable in keeping their commitments to you, then they are a true friend. Some of our acquaintances will disappear. Most people cannot read our minds, so open conversation is the best way to handle our feelings rather than worrying about them.

Stephanie: I experience this a lot. In the beginning it seems like everyone is in your corner, then after a while it's hard to find someone to talk to. It can be very isolating. I tried to be honest with my relatives and drop hints to friends. I let them know it's OK to not know what to say and most of the time I just needed someone there for companionship. I also found online support groups, with women who share the same diagnosisinfo-icon so I had a place to go to “talk shop.” I found that it was really nice to be able to talk to others who were experiencing similar issues. Most of my family came around and the friends who came through are people I will cherish forever. 


My teenage daughters are worried about their breast cancer risk since my diagnosis. Any advice on how to manage their anxiety?

Jenny: As you know, teenagers are experiencing the “storm and stressinfo-icon” of being a teen. Compound that with their mother’s diagnosisinfo-icon, and you can see how they have become anxious about themselves. I think managing anxietyinfo-icon is about having knowledge and being able to help them help themselves. Perhaps if you find them a support groupinfo-icon for teens with mothers diagnosed with breast cancer, they would feel more secure and they would be able to process their own feelings with someone other than you. With my own children, who were much younger than teens when I was diagnosed, I used vocabulary that they could understand and tried to be as upfront as possible. I included them in ways that I could, and I tried to keep our lives and routine as normal as possible. I took my older daughter to a support group. Your girls may need to process and talk about their own fears. I know you are the one who has been diagnosed, so maybe if you help them to understand what you need and how their anxiety makes you feel, they could begin to work on it. Know that their feelings come from a place of deep love and concern for you. 

Chris: Be sure to teach them about self-examination and the importance of knowing their breasts at different times of the month. When it comes to their feelings of anxiety, keep the conversation open and ongoing and share your geneticinfo-icon test results with them. An appointment with your oncologistinfo-icon might also help. It is impossible to guarantee they won't get breast cancer but assure them that you plan to be there with them as they grow up, and/or bring in a trusted relative or friend to help all of you deal with these questions over time. Taking them with you to a support group will also let them see hope for the future.  

Stephanie: This is so hard because I went through this with my children: I have 6. What I found was most helpful was letting them know that, right now, this day, I am fine and we will take each day as it comes. It was also important to validate their feelings. It's OK for them to be scared and anxious right now, but keep an eye out for excessive anxiety that starts to interfere with their lives. I also found that getting a counselor for them, to help them through it was extremely helpful.

Ever since my diagnosis, my relationship with my parents has changed. We’ve started to get to the point where I’m doing more to take care of them as they age, but at the same time, when something bad happens to me, it’s I like they go back to seeing me as their “baby girl.” Have you seen your relationship with your parents change since you were diagnosed?

Jenny: As the youngest in my family, I am literally the “baby girl.” I cannot change how people see me because they may have been feeling confused or scared and were attaching themselves to an understanding that helped them to feel more in control. But now that your roles are reversed, and you are helping them, you may want to articulate for them what it is you need from them. Seeing you as the “baby girl” may not be helpful in your own healing. If you talk with them about how this makes you feel and how it affects your own understanding of yourself, perhaps they would begin to change their thinking. 

Stephanie: Yes, it did, but I can't say I had a hard time with it. I do get frustrated at times but I try to put myself in their shoes. If anything happened to any one of my six children, I would have a hard time not doing the same thing! The mamma bear in me is strong. If they get carried away you could always say something to them, but if it isn't hurting anything, you may just want to humor them and let them help. Like it or not, you will always be their "baby girl."

I’m single and back at dating again after finishing treatment last year. Do you have any tips for how and when to tell potential boyfriends about my diagnosis? My instinct is to blurt it out upfront, but I also don’t want to scare them off.

Chris: I do not share information that has the possibility to scare people, nor do I share too much personal info in the beginning of a friendship. But I also don't wait too long. After you have an idea about the potential friend's personality, a joint sharing of health experiences is in order. Be transparent when asked, however.  

Stephanie: I think it's OK to get to  know them a little before letting them know, but if you feel like blurting it out, you have to stay true to your own feelings. Anyone who runs did you a favor anyway!

I have metastatic breast cancer and I get so frustrated when people tell me to “win the fight” and ask me when treatment is going to be over. How do you deal with people who are so misinformed about breast cancer?

 Stephanie: I wish the answer was as simple as "educate them" but it's not. Since my mets diagnoses I have ran into this so many times. I will try to educate but in the end, not everyone wants to hear the truth. What's that saying? "Ignorance is bliss." Unfortunately  some people will hear your diagnosisinfo-icon and be reminded of their mortalityinfo-icon and insist that if you just stay positive and pray you will "win the fight." I always try to educate first, but in the end if I am still meeting resistance and denial I try to remind myself that it is more about their feelings than mine and that MOST of them are coming from a place of love and good intentions. But in the end, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

My son told me he’s planning to move back to our hometown when he graduates college next year, but before my diagnosis all he talked about was moving to California. I think he’s changing his mind because he’s scared. I want him to make the best decisions for him and his career, and not worry so much about me. Any advice?

Chris: Ask him if he changed his mind due to your diagnosisinfo-icon and if so, tell him that the biggest gift he can give you is to follow his dream. Let him know you will make sure to spend quality time with him wherever he is located. Also let him know that other people are available to care for you, and that he doesn't  need to worry about caring for you. And make sure he understands your true prognosisinfo-icon, and how much you love him.

Stephanie: Right now I know you are feeling so many things, but it is also important to take a deep breath and think about your son's feelings, too. Let him know how you feel and your concerns but in the end he will have to make the decision that's right for him. His career will be there. I hope you both find peace with what he decides. 

This edition of Ask the Expert was originally published in September 2016.