For Anyone Who Loves Someone Struggling with Breast Cancer (or any illness)

October 2, 2014

It’s now officially October! Which means we’ll be seeing a flurry of pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.

I’d like to take this opportunity to speak about the less visible fighters in the battle against this devastating disease, and really any major illness. I’m talking about the family members who must endure watching their wife, mother, or sister suffer, and who also suffer greatly as a result (and often, in silence). In the field of family therapy, we conceptualize illness as a family problem. Not only does cancer attack the body, but it also inevitably shifts the equilibrium of the family, changing behavioral dynamics and bringing intense emotions to the surface.

Every family is unique in the way they cope with a major illness. While a spouse may mobilize all their energy and direct it toward their ill partner, a child may cope through withdrawal, and distance themselves from the family (or vice versa). Frustration, confusion, and even resentment may build between family members when they display differing coping styles.

What is most important for families to remember is this: healthy individuals in the family have important needs that must be met, and it can be easy to overlook these needs when faced with a devastating diagnosis like breast cancer. An exhausted spouse should be encouraged to take a break and treat themselves. A daughter’s first school dance or failing test grade should be acknowledged with as normative a response as is possible.

Medical family therapy research has shown that families that work to maintain this balance of individual needs actually have more positive health outcomes than those who over-focus on the illness. It is natural for many families to want to organize around a problem, mobilizing all their energy toward keeping the ill family member healthy.

But the truth is, our wives, mothers, and sisters suffering from breast cancer will benefit most from receiving love, care, and support from healthy, fulfilled family members.

So if you have a loved one suffering from breast cancer, this is your month too. Be kind to yourself.

Nicole Brown, MFT is a staff therapist at Council for Relationships’ University City and Voorhees, NJ offices. Ms. Brown has experience helping individuals and couples cope with both everyday struggles and extraordinary obstacles. She can be reached at nbrown@councilforrelationships or (215) 382-6680 x 4346.