When Cancer Survivor Becomes Caregiver: Mom Has Breast Cancer

Blessed are the caregivers, says two-time cancer survivor who is now helping her older mom cope with cancer.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46. After treatment and about five years ago, I moved my parents up to live by me. I am an only child. After my dad passed away three years ago, my mom got breast cancer. With other health factors in play too, she had a lumpectomy at age 81 and did well. But now, three years later, her cancer is back. We have lived in fear and worry for two weeks since her needle biopsy and oncology visit. Now we wait for her PET scan results—is the cat already out of the bag or not? My heart is breaking.

Being a bit OCD and trying to do my research before meeting with our oncologist, I became pretty rapidly confused. The studies seem mixed because of the different factors already in play for many women over 80. I am grateful for the wisdom and gentleness of our oncologist. Mom’s decision tree for the treatment of her cancer seems to have more branches than mine did.

I was young and healthy, except for the cancer thing. I wanted to live longer, a lot longer. I wanted to see grandchildren someday if it happens. Everyone who helped me with my first cancer, including and especially me, agreed it was reasonable to treat the cancer aggressively. That may not be the decision in Mom’s case. We don’t know all the pieces of the puzzle yet and she needs some time to sort this out.

When I got cancer the first time, I was extremely scared and I was in a big hurry to get it out. Mom is not me. As the caregiver and daughter, it is important that I remember that. My job is to help her here, not me. My job is to be the caregiver and support system for her. This is a different role than my previous interactions with cancer.

Yes, I know a lot about cancer—my cancers. Her cancer is different. She is at a different place in life, has a different kind of breast cancer, and she has other health issues that I didn’t.

“Back off Barb,” I tell myself. “Be supportive of her choices, not my choices.” Yikes, I have a new respect for caregivers. This is a hard role, especially given my own cancer experiences. Again, those were my experiences, not hers. I am trying to learn how to ask good questions and be supportive and yet not too opinionated. These choices are her choices to make not mine, and that is so difficult!

Has this happened to other cancer survivors? How have you handled it?