When Elizabeth Edwards announced in March that her breast cancer had returned, her peers -- other breast cancer survivors -- expressed a range of emotions. Topping the list was empathy for Edwards, whose cancer had spread to her bones. There was also pride in her bravery: She chose to be open and honest about an intensely personal health issue. Others found themselves reliving their own diagnoses. And, of course, many could not help but give way to gnawing worry about their own health. Edwards' announcement...
"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.