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

21 thoughts to “Parallels Between Breast Cancer & Grief”

  1. Yes, I’ve felt rushed to “get through” the grief. Like the time I ended up going to work the Monday after my dog (Brittni) died and sobbing at my desk when my boss was criticizing me for something unrelated. Awkward. Should’ve taken a day or two off instead of trying to go on like nothing happened. Ironically, the main reason I went to work that day was so my boss could have the morning off to attend a funeral. But she still came to work as well immediately afterwards.

    1. Lindsay, So much rushing through grief goes on. And I do believe we’re often judged on how quickly we get on with things. Sad, but true. And yes, that is ironic about you going to work so your boss could go to a funeral. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am 6 months out of treatment and everytime I have had to see my oncologist he seems to feel that I should be back to my old self. That person is gone. He shrugs his shoulders dismissively at my sense of loss and grief for what has happened to me.

    I lost my job, my sense of self worth, and what makes me a woman. I have chronic pain from the extensive surgery. I don’t recognize the person in the mirror anymore. How do you get over this?

    1. Kerry, Your oncologist needs to gain a better understanding and develop more compassion if he wants to be better at his work. Don’t be silenced by his, or anyone else’s dismissiveness. As for your getting over it question, I don’t think you do ever get over it. You learn to adapt, adjust and live your life. All this takes lots of work, time and self-compassion. And I’d also add getting counseling if need be. There is a lot involved with recovery and you are not very far out at all yet. Be kind and patient with yourself. And talk to others who understand or who are willing to try to. And remember you are worthy for just being you. Good luck with things. Keep us posted.

  3. Nancy, you continue to write such honest, insightful posts. I shared this with my on-line support group, and it resonated with all of them.

    I keep beating myself up for not “moving on”, and yet it’s the new me, I’ll never “move on”–it’s a part of my life.

    My lymphedema keeps my breast cancer upfront and center.

    Recently I saw my new oncologist, who re-raised the concept of extended adjuvant therapy. I stopped tamoxifen last year after it caused endometrial cancer.

    He told me that resuming it would be a “small but real” benefit, and told me to project myself 10 years into the future and consider if I’d have regrets for not resuming a medication that at best would confer a 2%-3% reduction in recurrence risk, and I can’t predict that future. And it’s put me back into a place on my breast cancer experience that I thought I’d navigated years ago.

    Wonder why I can’t move on….

    Thank you again for your trenchant insights. You’re so validating and accepting, while putting our real experience into beautiful writing.

    1. Kira, I’ll never “move on” either, not completely. And yes, when you are managing lymphedema, that definitely keeps things front and center. I’m sorry you’ve been put back into that “place” you thought you had navigated earlier. Thank you for reading and for your kind words about my writing. And thanks for sharing this post with your support group too.

  4. Absolutely, there has been grief and loss for me. And as much as I hate to admit it–being a curmudgeon who so dislikes the cancer/gift idea–there have been gains as well. For me, the gains were just not the socially acceptable, nice enough for a race survivor story kind of thing. I’m still figuring this all out.
    Yep, there are people who think I should be all done, over it–I spent much time pondering and writing about it last year. It will always bug me, and I’ll likely tackle it again, but in the meantime, I have learned to just walk away when others imply to me I should be over it.

    1. Cancer Curmudgeon, Sure there are always things to garner and learn from bad experiences too. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have made some gains since cancer, but the grief, loss, anguish, worry and all the other baggage that comes with it far outweigh any gains and I’ll never call cancer a gift. Never. Yes, there’s much to figure out isn’t there? I like your walking away solution. Sometimes that’s what we need to do, walk away – literally or figuratively. Whatever works. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  5. Nancy, I have a blog post half written about the parallels of grief and cancer. I think the problem is even broader.

    I know I sound like a grandma but, in today’s world, it seems we are all supposed to move past whatever we are dealing with and get right back on that horse and get back to work and push through it.

    It’s like we’re all supposed to act more like robots than human beings.

    When my father died 7 years ago, I returned to work 1 week later. At the time I worked in a rather small office: 12 people. You would think an office that tiny would be supportive; but it was quite the opposite. No one said anything to me (hard to believe but true) that first day back. I think they were afraid I would crack if they said anything to me (they were probably right) so instead they acted as if nothing was different, as if nothing had happened.

    At the end of that day, my nemesis — someone I butted heads with at work often — was the *only* one to give me a hug and say he was sorry for my loss. At the time I didn’t understand how the last person I would expect to show me compassion was the first to do so.

    Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After I went through my surgeries, I remembered and drew upon that experience after my father died, and I was less shocked when people did (or didn’t) step up to my cancer plate. Thankfully, I was no longer working at that office when I was diagnosed. I’m not sure they would have handled my cancer any differently.

    Grief, like cancer, brings out the best and the worst in everyone. It dramatically levels the playing field — it’s apparent who is left standing in the outfield supporting us, and who has run to hide in the dugout.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, nancy. You always nail it!

    1. Renn, You make an interesting point and I happen to agree with you, so if that means we both sound like grandmas, so be it! There is a lot of rushing that goes on, especially surrounding grief. That’s a sad story you share about your workplace environment following your father’s death. People do hesitate to discuss death/loss out of fear mostly I suppose. Why does everyone worry so much about “cracking” anyway? It’s hard to show vulnerability, but if we all did it more, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard. And yes, grief and cancer do bring out the best and worst in everyone, patient’s included. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to your post. Come back and link here if you’d like to.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

    1. 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.

      1. Yes anger… As a therapist I know it is part of the grief emotions but I just felt so angry that I was having to do this … That the cancer and the treatment had led me to this place… Needless to say over time the anger turned to tears and I have once again moved through that to a happier place. I really do believe that you have to give these feelings space, explore them and understand why you feel the way we do…

        1. Helen, I agree completely with you about giving feelings space, exploring them and trying to understand them. How else can one really expect to manage things? I think you are a very wise and compassionate therapist. Thanks for the comments.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

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