How does breast cancer affect the children of victims?

What is breast cancer?
What are the different stages of cancer?
How does this disease affect children?
Interview with Emily

What are the treatments?
What are the statistics?
How are people campaigning for breast cancer survival?
What is it like to be a victim?  A   survivor?
What can the family do to support the victim?
The Paper
Riverdale High School Home Page

What are the psychological affects of breast cancer on children of victims?
By Emily Thomas
One out of every eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer.  It is the number one leading cause of death for women ages 40-44 years old.  This disease not only affects women but it also affects men.  Breast cancer is cancer of the breast and can be detected by self examinations and mammograms.  When the cancer is at it's worst state, a doctor may have no choice but to perform a mastectomy, removal of the breast(s).
Picture of a mastectomy
As a result, many breast cancer patients opt to have an implant.  Some women have implants not because they want to satisfy themselves, but to satisfy society.  “You can't ignore the images of beautiful breasts that pervade our society and you can't  stop your own breast for being damaged.  What you can do, however, is make sure you mourn the loss.”  (Nash 83)  Just flipping through the channels on the television recently, it seemed like every single channel had beautiful women with huge, voluptuous breasts.  This is what we are teaching our youth, it is sad, but this is what our society has based the typical American woman on.  
Picture of Breast Implant
Not only does this disease affect the patient, but it also affects the family, especially children.  I am interested in this topic because I have a deep concern for children as well as breast cancer.  I feel that it is important that we as a society understand this disease and how it affects not only the patient, but the children of the patient as well.  The question that I would like to answer is, “what are the psychological affects on children of mothers who have breast cancer?”  Meaning, do they become extremely depressed, saddened, angry, etc.   What exactly about breast cancer triggers those emotions for them? 
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells resulting from gene mutations, which is some cases is the p53 gene.  There are five stages of cancer (Love, Susan M.)
    -Hyperplasia where the cell still appears clinically normal, but is dividing to rapidly. 
    -Dysplasia where the genes mutate again and the cell shape is no longer     normal under a microscope.
    -In-situ cancer where cells are still localized and confined to the tissue from which they originated.
    -Invasive cancer where under a microscope the tumor as invaded the surrounding tissue and has the potential to travel through the lymphatic system or blood.
    -Metastic cancer where the cancer has spread to a new site.   

The treatments used in breast cancer are chemotherapy, hormone shots, prayer, mastectomies, lumpectomies, radiation therapy and drug therapy.  

Breast cancer is obviously a huge concern of society.  Everywhere you look you see campaigns advertisements and sponsored events.  Take Nordstroms for instance, in October 2002, they gave away free pink light bulbs and pink ribbons (pink is the nationally known color to represent breast cancer) as a way of making the disease known.  There is also the “Race for the cure” marathon, held in New York City, Portland, San Francisco, and some other major cities where women who are survivors and women who just want to support the cause can get together and race for a cure.  They raise money by collection sponsors for themselves.  All the money they get goes to breast cancer research.  This year alone, over 7,000 women came to race in Portland.  The yogurt “Yoplait”, now has pink lids on their yogurt, as a type of fund raiser for breast cancer research.  Every pink lid that someone sends to the company represents ten cents that they will send to the cause. 

What is it like to be a breast cancer patient/survivor?  Some women say that they would have rather died then have to go through life with out a breast.  The embarrassment is far too much for them to handle.  They are embarrassed for their children, knowing that they look at them and know that they are different.  "Cancer causes dramatic changes in family dynamics, how a family deals with this change can impact each person's psychological and physical well-being.  This is especially true for children who can blame themselves or focus on the worst." -Dr. Marissa Weiss, M.D., an oncologist specializing in breast cancer.  Children of mothers who have breast cancer are likely to experience long-term psychological affects.  These affects include fear, insecurity, anger, sadness, isolation, and curiosity.  Perhaps the strongest of these emotions is fear. 

Children fear that their parent is going to die or that the cancer is contagious and they will get it.  Perhaps this is because the only exposure they have had with cancer is that people who have had cancer have died.  Therefore cancer means death to them.  “Because our society frequently hides the diagnosis of cancer, often a child's or teens only exposure to cancer is people who have died.”  (Brazy 2)  They also may have fear because they can sense that their parents are afraid.  They may fear separation, especially when their mother is hospitalized.  They may also fear that cancer is contagious.  It is extremely important as a parent to assure them that cancer is not contagious.  Also, children will have the fear that they caused the cancer.  “Magical thinking is normal in children.  Magical thinking is the idea that they can make their thoughts and wishes come true.  Last week they may have been mad at you and thought, “I'm mad at Mommy; I want to hurt her.”  Now you have cancer and you hurt, more than they ever thought possible.  They fear they caused the cancer and the impact of their wishes is now beyond their control.  They feel very guilty and afraid.”  Brazy 3)

Anger is also one of the many feelings children will experience.  Their reaction to feeling angry may be to act out, such as failing in school or become demanding and disobey their parents, especially the mother.  Children may isolate themselves from everyone as a way of coping.  "Children are acutely aware that the mother is sick and know when secrets are being kept from them.  They are more frightened by what they imagine than the truth." (From Psychological Impact on the Family, page 1). 

Sadness is also an overwhelming feeling that they will encounter.  Some children may cry with their mother because she is crying.  Others may pretend to ignore it and not express their sadness. 

Parents are very careful about telling their children that they have the disease.  “I didn't want to lie.  Part of my job is to teach (my children) the importance of honesty, but it is also my job to protect them, and by telling them I had cancer, I would be admitting that the world is a scary and dangerous place that's largely out of our control.”  (Nash 40)  Parents feel that by telling their children, they are subjecting them to depression and pain.  This is not true!  You are better off telling them the truth then keeping the truth from them!

Husbands find it incredibly hard to cope the disease.  “A woman's breast cancer doesn't affect only the woman.  It also strongly impacts the man who loves her.  In many ways, I think the experience is much harder on him, partly because he feels so powerless.  Men are great “fixers.”  But this is something they can't fix.” (Jensen 115)  Many husbands don't want their wives to see that they are hurting and feel weak and afraid.  They become the caregiver, nurse, or protector.  One husband (we'll call him Mark) from the book The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming fell into deep depression while his wife was in treatment.  He felt completely powerless to her disease.  The sad part is is that she died six weeks into her treatment.  Mark then committed suicide two days later.  This is just one of thousands of situations that take place when a woman had breast cancer.

Adolescent children have more problems dealing with the reality than younger kids.  They are more likely to become clinically depressed and become suicidal if not cared for properly.  "Adolescent children are trying to break away and become individuals and severe illness forces them back to the family unit." (From Psychological Impact on the Family, page 1). 

Adolescent daughters especially suffer from this.  They sometimes feel like they are expected to take over the mother role in the family.  Some teenage girls don't want to accept the fact that they are becoming a woman.  They are too afraid of contracting the disease themselves.  There is also a lingering fear that they will get breast cancer themselves, as you can see in this exert from My Mother's Breast (page 68) about a girl who's mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

I didn't want boobs, plain and simple.  They were for everybody else, but I didn't need them.  I didn't want them, but I got them anyway, and they kept growing.  They grew to be extremely big.  I would deliberately buy bras that were too small, as a way of denying how big they were.  You couldn't get me to dress like a female either.  I was very much into pants and things that looked more masculine.  A lot of big sweat shirts.  I was hiding my body.  I remember that I was only fourteen when I considered having surgery to get them made smaller or nonexistent.

I interviewed Emily Granatowski from Riverdale High School about her mothers death from breast cancer.  This is what she had to say...
    What were your feelings during your mother's cancer?
“I was confused because I didn't know what it was.  No one told me anything about it, including my dad.  I guess I was pretty naive.  I felt very sad all the time and lonely because my mom was in the hospital.”
    Were you and your mom close?
“Yes, we were very close.  It was tremendously hard to deal with my feelings without having my best friend with me.”
    What is your last memory of your mother?
“The day that she died, I remember seeing them (the doctors) take her out of the room with sheets over her body.  I had gotten to the hospital after she died.  I kissed her goodbye on the cheek.”
    What was the last thing that she said to you?
“She made me a tape telling how she wished she could be her to see me grow up.  Every year my mom ran in “Race for the Cure”.  After she died I started to run it for her.”   
    How did your dad feel/behave throughout all of this?
“He got really frustrated because he was having to raise two girls on his own while my mom was in the hospital.  He eventually hired a hospice worker to take care of us so he could be at the hospital with my mom.  After my mom died, he remarried my moms best friend.  We don't get along.”

Should parents tell their children when they have breast cancer?
“Yes, definitely share it with your children.  Keeping the information sheltered from them only hurts them more in the end.  They don't understand.  It is extremely important to for teenage girls to know so that they can check themselves for breast cancer.” 
    What are the benefits of not being told?
“I was able to continue living a normal life as a kid.  I could do my own thing without letting it get to me.”
    What advice would you give to other kids out their who     have a parent or family member with breast cancer     (assuming that they know about it)?
“It is really important that you talk about it and learn about it.  Talk to other people about your feelings.  The most helpful thing that I did after her death was go to grief counseling and peer groups where i could be with other kids my age”

Adolescent sons have the most trouble dealing with breast cancer of anyone in the family because they are usually given the least amount of affection and attention during this type of crisis.  They are embarrassed to discuss sexual issues and therefore withdraw themselves from their family, give them the "silent treatment".  Adolescents need their mother to comfort them.  This will insure that they don't ignore the disease.  Though they may appear to not even care, they do!   
So, if a mother has breast cancer should they tell their child/children?  Yes, think that if a mother gets breast cancer, that should NOT be kept secret from young children.  Keeping things from children does not help them, only hurts them.  “Although children may have a variety of reaction to learning that their parent has cancer, all studies confirm that it is better to tell the child than withhold the information and it is better to tell sooner rather than later.  When the child is not told, there is more anxiety and more difficult adaptation later.” (Brazy 1) They have every right to know what is going on, especially when it deals with their mother.  There are plenty of ways to help a child cope with a mother with breast cancer.  Counseling is one of them.  Perhaps this is a biased opinion, but I feel this way because I have seen what it does emotionally to young children when things such as death, etc, are kept from them.  It literally tears them apart.  Not telling a child that their mother has breast cancer can cause long term damage to them emotionally.  Especially if their mother was to die and they weren't informed of her disease before she did.  It all comes down to the old saying...”Short term pain, long term gain.”  This topic is important to the public because of the number of   growing women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.  People need to understand that this disease does not just affect the patient, it also affects the people who love and care for them.  Perhaps if I had more time I would study the emotional affects of lying to a child.  What happens if it is the parent specifically who lies to them.  And also study  breast cancer itself more deeply as a disease.  I encourage you as the reader to get involved in your community's breast cancer awareness.  This may mean walking in the “Avon Walk for Breast Cancer”, “Race for the Cure”, or just simply educating yourself more on this disease by going to your local library or clinic.  There are plenty of options out there and internships that one can invo
lve themselves in.    Well you know how I feel... now what do you think?