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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.

Breast Cancer and Your Family Relationships

Among the most important relationships in our lives are those we forge with our partners and especially our children. And whether they’re toddlers, grade school-aged, teens, or even young adults, experts say if you want to keep the family unit strong during this challenging time, it's essential that you confide in them from the very earliest stages of your disease. 

"It doesn't work to keep this important a secret from your children. Kids are remarkable in that they pick up on everything going on in their parents’ life, and they almost always know when something is wrong," says Puckett.

Moreover, Murillo cautions that when kids do sense a problem but don't know what it is, they often blame themselves.

"They begin to feel guilty, as if they are causing the situation, and they pull away. So it's very important to talk to them honestly and openly right from the start," says Murillo.

While Nelson says very few parents use the word "cancer" in their explanation -- most, she says, refer to tumors or lesions, or sometimes just say “Mommy is sick” – what trumps the list of suggestions is assuring your children that you are doing everything possible to get well. 

"You can't promise your kids that you're going to be alive and that everything is OK, but you can say you are working with the best doctors you could find and that everyone is going to do their very best to help you get better," says Puckett.

And what if your child asks, "Mommy, are you going to die?" Puckett says the answer is always "I hope not."

"Tell them you are doing everything you can to stay with them, and you'll let them know if anything changes. Building a sense of trust is key to building a strong, supportive family unit during this time," she says. 

(How did your relationships change during or after cancer? Share your own coping tips on WebMD's Breast Cancer: Friend to Friend message board.)

Breast Cancer And Your Intimate Relationships

While crisis automatically bonds some partners in a unified front, sadly, that's not always the case. Indeed, experts say that when partners try to shield each other from the pain and worry of breast cancer, often they grow further apart -- and don't even understand why.    

"This is an area that most patients have the most difficulty with -- not only the patients, but their partners -- and it occurs mainly because they are not sharing with each other, so neither knows how the other is thinking or feeling," says Murillo.

When you don't know what your partner is thinking, he says, you often assume the worst -- that they don't care, or that they don't want you. And the natural reaction is to withdraw.

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