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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Breast Cancer's Relationship Toll

Any major illness can strain close relationships. But for women with breast cancer, it can be an especially difficult emotional challenge.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For many women, the diagnosis of breast cancer represents not only a major physical battle, but also the ultimate emotional challenge -- one that affects every relationship in our life.

Indeed, from friendships to romance, from being a parent to being a daughter, the way you relate to everyone -- and the way they relate to you -- can be affected.

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Me and the Girls: Ilene Smith

WebMD senior writer Miranda Hitti interviewed breast cancer survivors as part of a series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The series, called “Me & the Girls,” explores the personal stories of these women after they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer survivor Ilene Smith, MS, RD, 49, lives in the New York area. In late October 2007, Smith felt a lump in her left breast while on a conference call for work. "I got cold, and so I put my hand under my arm, and I felt the...

Read the Me and the Girls: Ilene Smith article > >

"I do think cancer has more impact on emotions and emotional relationships than other catastrophic diseases, because with cancer, death is often the first thing people flash on. There's an immediate shock and emotional impact that few other illnesses have," says Katherine Puckett, LCSW, national director of Mind-Body Medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago.

Moreover, Puckett says that the uncertainty of the disease itself enhances that impact. "It's the not knowing aspect of breast cancer that increases the emotionality in regard to all your relationships. It heightens anxiety, but it heightens and changes everything in your life," says Puckett.

But the changes, she says, don't have to be negative.

Indeed, for some women, breast cancer can be the catalyst that turns casual friendships into deep and meaningful bonds, that brings couples closer, that helps the family unit become stronger and more cohesive.

For others, however, it can be a lonely and isolating time -- a period of life when people we counted on most seem to all but disappear.

So what is it that determines how breast cancer will affect you and the people in your life? Experts say it’s often linked to a willingness to let others share your burden, something that doesn't come easy for many women.

"Women are the caregivers. We are used to taking care of everyone else, so it can be a huge emotional struggle to give up some of that control and let people in. Even with illness, women still want to handle everything on their own," says Gloria Nelson, LSCW, senior oncology social worker at the Montefiore/Einstein Cancer Center in New York City.

Moreover, experts say, many women view asking for help as a sign of weakness, so they won't allow even those who want to help to do so.

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