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Breast Cancer Affects Family in Ways We May Not See or Understand

When a family member is diagnosed with breast cancer, all members of the family suffer in some way. The effects aren't always visible.
PUBLISHED November 23, 2016
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
While on the telephone recently, my oldest daughter asked how I was feeling. Speaking in generalities, I gave her an update on my latest doctor visits and test results. I was pleased with the majority of the results and felt I was doing quite well. After a few moments of silence, I heard soft weeping. When I asked what was wrong, my daughter explained she’d been doing a lot of thinking lately. I was surprised when she mentioned her thoughts revolved around cancer. As I continued to listen, I could hear her heart. She was trying to tell me she was afraid of getting breast cancer.  

Thinking back to when I was first diagnosed, I remember how surprised our family had been. No one expected it. Surgery came quickly and treatment shortly thereafter. There wasn’t much time to discuss breast cancer, and even if there had been, I was pretty ignorant about cancer, so how could I share what I didn’t understand? As the mother of three daughters, I should have expected their feelings of fearfulness and concern, but I didn’t. I should have taken time to talk with them about all aspects of the disease, but I was focused on trying to get through each day as it came.  

Since the topic of breast cancer had come up in our conversation, I felt it important to discuss it openly. I asked my daughter if there were any specific questions or concerns she’d like me to address. She told me she’d been really afraid when I was first diagnosed. She didn’t share her feelings with me at that time because she didn’t want to burden me with undue stress. She knew I had enough on my plate. She was afraid I’d die. I listened as she went on to say she was also afraid of the future. She expressed fear of getting breast cancer one day and she was also concerned it might be passed down to her daughter. I had no idea this was weighing so heavily on her mind. Although it had been a fairly short time since my surgery, everything was still fresh and raw in her mind.  

I tried to put myself in her shoes as I thought about how I’d feel if our roles were reversed. If my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I would have been very concerned about receiving a genetic predisposition to cancer. I probably would have felt the same way my daughter was feeling now, almost like having a monkey on her back…a ticking time bomb waiting to explode when she least expected it.  So how could I help assuage her fears? My oncologist hadn’t felt it necessary to perform a BRCA test on me since I was the first in my family to develop breast cancer and I was HER2/neu. (“The BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA and, play a role in ensuring the stability of the cell’s genetic material. When either of these genes is mutated, DNA damage may not be repaired properly. As a result, cells are more likely to develop genetic alterations that can lead to cancer,” according to the National Institute of Health.)

Since I hadn’t been tested for these mutations, we really had no idea of knowing whether or not my specific type of breast cancer was hereditary. Mammograms weren’t commonplace in the generations before my mother’s era and this caused me to stop and think. Shouldn’t families, especially those with a history of breast cancer, make a point to jot down a type of genetic family tree? It would be a helpful thing for my daughters to know which family members had been diagnosed with breast cancer – or any type of cancer for that matter. I took a piece of paper and began writing down the names of all the family members I could remember. I was able to go back five generations. Next, I began making notes on the cause of death for each of our deceased family members. I circled cancer related deaths in red. I also made notes for those currently living with any form of cancer and notated the type of cancer. Being able to have a visual family medical history was astonishing. As I looked over the chart I’d made, I was dumbfounded to see various sorts of cancer sprinkled throughout our family. Although there was only one other relative besides myself who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew this would be a valuable tool for my daughters. My hope was that they’d continue to update the family medical tree as their own families expanded.  

I made a promise to my daughter to discuss her concerns with my doctor. At my next appointment, I’ll do my best to get some answers for her regarding the possibility of a predisposition to breast cancer. I’m thankful she had the freedom to voice her concerns to me. Breast cancer is a scary thing, but knowing advances are being made daily in the medical field should give a hope for a better tomorrow to my children and grandchildren. 
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