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Parallels Between Breast Cancer & Grief

When I started blogging, I knew from the get-go I wanted to write about breast cancer and loss. When my mother died from metastatic breast cancer, my life changed forever. Less than two years later when I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself, obviously things changed pretty darn dramatically again.

I knew it wouldn’t be possible for me to write a blog about one of these things without also writing about the other. For many reasons the two were, and are, intricately intertwined.

This would have been the case had my mother died from something other than breast cancer. The loss of your mother is life-altering for most, no matter what the cause of death might be.

Admittedly, one of my concerns when I started Nancy’s Point was that these two topics were pretty darn heavy. I mean come on, breast cancer and loss…


Would anyone want to read about this stuff?

I even asked Dear Daughter if my blog header “a blog about breast cancer and loss” sounded too depressing.

She’s always honest and said, “Umm, yeah, a little bit.”

Still, I didn’t want to change it, and so I didn’t.

This was, and is, because while the topics might be heavy, talking and sharing about them is not. In fact, I find doing so to be healing and yes, even uplifting. It hopefully helps others as well.

Not talking about the serious stuff, now that is depressing.

I didn’t fully realize it in the beginning, but the parallels between breast cancer and grief/loss are pretty stunning at times.

Breast cancer and loss, they do go hand and in hand. As I wrote about in a post a while back, Breast Cancer Is a String of Losses. It is just that – a string of losses.

Now I’m certainly not saying a cancer diagnosis is the same as the death of a dear loved one. No, I’m not saying that at all. But there are parallels in these two life-changing transformations.

For example, both cause pain. Both create emotional scars. Both necessitate considerable grieving. Both cause turmoil and upheaval on many different levels. Both require healing. Both require considerable adapting and adjusting. Both require time to navigate them.

Above all, both experiences become a huge part of who you are.

One thing that really strikes me is how there is a societal expectation for how to do cancer and how to do grief and loss as well.

After the death of a loved one and after a cancer diagnosis, generally speaking, you’re expected to get on with things pretty quickly.

Oh sure, you’re given a certain time allotment to get through the messy parts, but after a certain amount of time passes, you’re supposed to be done. Eventually, most people don’t talk about your loved one. Likewise, eventually most people don’t talk about your cancer. This isn’t necessarily good or bad; it just is.

I would go even further and say there’s also a fair amount of judging that goes on in both realms.

It’s almost as if the faster you put your grief behind you, the better job you’ve supposedly done handling things. You get the gold star in grief management or something like that. Ridiculous really.

The same might be said about breast cancer. There is an unspoken message out there that says find it early, cut it out, get through treatment, pick up your pink survivor badge and be done with it. Just do things “right” and all will be fine.

(Obviously, most of us realize it’s never that simple).

Again, you’re sort of judged by how well and how fast you meet all the “doing cancer right” requirements.

A “good breast cancer survivor” moves on quickly, shelves the experience and never looks back – at least not very often. And wait, there’s more. She’s also sorta expected to emerge as a new and improved version of her former self. Again, ridiculous.

I find these parallels very interesting.

Hurry up and grieve. Get over it quickly. Be done. Move on.

Hurry up with cancer. Get over it quickly. Be done. Move on.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of expectation?

Maybe. Maybe not.

If it works for you, fine.

But what if it doesn’t?

Grief has no time table. There is no one-size-fits-all way to do grief.

The same can be said about cancer.

Ultimately, there’s only one way to “ride the waves” of whatever happens in your life – your way.

At least this is how it should be.

Have you ever felt hurried to get through grief or cancer and just put it all behind you?

Have you ever felt as you were “doing” grief or cancer wrong?

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Parallels between breast cancer & grief

Moving Forward vs. Moving On | Nancy's Point

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

[…] I’ve mentioned many times, there are overlaps in the realms of grief/loss and breast cancer that I discover, or more accurately, come to realize when writing about either of them. One of the […]

Carol Bysiek

Tuesday 10th of June 2014

This is lovely, Nancy. It all rings so true.

The grieving and healing curve are so significantly misunderstood in all arenas, and breast cancer is no different. There is simply no comparing the capacity of understanding between a survivor and a non-survivor. We need to look to one another for the compassion and support because we understand it at the deepest level. We have lived it. It almost becomes unfair to expect those who have not been catapulted into these strange woods and had to journey out of them to understand it. There are a rare few who are able to get that close to it. Most understandably just want the old 'you' back, but 'you' might not be as you were before, and that leads to a grieving and readjustment process for everyone.

After my year long treatment, I felt as though I was dropped off the edge of a cliff, all the support was gone, all the compassion and understanding disappeared. It's done, everyone said. "Thank goodness, that's over". Yes, thank goodness, but I was hardly whole.

I wanted to change that. So I started a health coaching practice, and a website and dedicated my signature program THRIVE to cancer survivorship and to the need for time and support to heal. I recently began to blog in the Huffington Post, and I try to bring awareness to the unsustainable ways in which women are living both with and without cancer. We need to put well-being at the forefront, as well as balance, community, and connection. It was the cancer that opened my eyes to this, and for that I am grateful....but the world does not see what we can see (the 'gift'), so the struggle remains. But with great blogs like yours and others raising awareness and opening up, we can change things. We can support one another, goodness knows we are everywhere.


Wednesday 11th of June 2014

Carol, I know how it feels to be dropped off that cliff. It's never really over is it? It sounds like you are doing some important work. Survivorship is hard too. There is always a line to walk as we try to balance gratitude, grief, loss, and all the other stuff too. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I'll check out your site soon.

Beth L. Gainer

Sunday 11th of May 2014

Great post, Nancy! You raise excellent, insightful points, and I agree that so many people expect those who've confronted a disease, loss of someone, etc. to just get up and just "get over it."

I think this stems from a culture of positive thinking that has infiltrated our society: be positive, don't be sad, quickly move on past grief. The message is clear: our culture is uncomfortable with sadness and grief. Meanwhile, it's hard enough to deal with loss, only made harder by a society that tries to rush you through it.


Sunday 11th of May 2014

Beth, You make some excellent points. I wonder if other cultures are less uncomfortable with talking about grief and if they have different expectations on how it "should be done". There seems to be so much rushing through grief going on... in the end, this is more harmful I think. Thanks for reading and sharing your insights, Beth.


Friday 9th of May 2014

It is 12 years since my cancer diagnosis and 27 years since my dad died of cancer... There are times that I think the grief has gone then something happens to trigger it all over again... The grief for my dad flared up when I had my own cancer diagnosis and after all these years I still miss him so much ... I too live with Lymphedema and this is always a reminder of the cancer but I thought i had moved on with the grief... That was until I had my Lymph node transfer last year and the grief surfaced in the form of anger this time!!! I find that being able to share with others helps me so much with all this... I don't have to pretend that it is all ok as they understand where i am at ... And Nancy you are one of those people who understands ... Thank you..Helen


Friday 9th of May 2014

Helen, I know what you mean about those triggers. Your dad has been gone a long time, but of course you still miss him. I suppose it makes sense that your grief flared up again during the time of your node transfer - in the form of anger, though. That's interesting. Emotions are so complex. Thank you for reading and for your understanding spirit as well, Helen.


Thursday 8th of May 2014

I remember showing up to a meeting exactly a week to the day after my mother died. A part of me just wanted to put my head on the table and weep. I'm still writing about her death and my cancer... Day to day I don't talk about it much.


Thursday 8th of May 2014

Maesprose, Your comment says an awful lot and makes me feel like I want to give you a big hug. xxx

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