I am so sorry to hear about your mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer. As you well know, this disease afflicts many women and can occur at any age or stage of life. First, it is important to know that a diagnosis of breast cancer (or cancer of any kind) is not an automatic death sentence.

Advances in scientific knowledge, medical treatment, and psychological support are occurring continuously and can make a real difference in the progression of the disease and its outcome.  Still, it is important to realize that some people will become very ill and die of the cancer no matter how aggressive the treatment, how positive their attitude, or how large their support system.

I say this because in this age of believing that we can cure anything and that “if we just change our attitude we can beat every illness”, it is easy to lay blame on the person with the disease or on the medical professionals for failing to stop the devastation of the disease. It is both important and possible to be realistic about all of the potential outcomes yet remain in the present and hopeful about your loved one’s chances for survival and recovery. Much of this depends, of course, on the stage at which the cancer is detected and their responsiveness to available treatments.

There are several ways that you and your family can support your mother. One is to keep treating her as a person, not just as a patient or a victim of the disease.  It also helps to continue participating in all normal life activities and maintain family routines for as long as she is feeling well.  Listen to her concerns and feelings and also to her hopes and ideas for her own treatment. Take her wants and needs seriously and arrange to meet those that can be met.

Don’t discourage your mother from thinking about possible futures, but if the prognosis looks very critical, it will be important to gently encourage her to complete steps that will lead her to healing closure in her important relationships and the “business” associated with the end of life. This includes creating wills, living wills, a medical power-of-attorney, burial or cremation arrangements and other matters.  Consult with your local cancer treatment center, hospital or breast cancer support group for a comprehensive listing of the issues that should be addressed.

Regarding your own personal feelings and responses to your mother’s diagnosis, there are several things you can do.  Naturally, you and other family members will want to support and listen to one another to the extent you can and to the extent that you have reasonably supportive relationships within the family.  Try to look past grudges between yourself and your parents, siblings or other members of your extended family and encourage others to do the same.  This is a time for healing old wounds and rallying in support of your ill family member.

It is also important to recognize that there are areas of assistance that you may be able to handle better than other areas.  Distribute the load and let other family members and friends provide assistance in various areas of need. They may be better or more at ease with certain areas of assistance that are not as easy for you.  Hospice is also an excellent resource to access should things come to the point where your mother is ready to discontinue treatment and allowing herself to accept the reality of her death without extraordinary heroic medical efforts.

Finally, don’t forget your own health and well-being in the process of being there for your mother. We are fortunate to live in an area where there are a number of support agencies and resources for family members who are going through this experience with their loved one.