Breast cancer’s effect on family life

By Kaitlin Barr
October 25, 2007


“I stood in the kitchen doorway as she walked down the hallway, stopped, turned around and asked, ‘So it’s cancer?’ My stomach dropped as I watched her face go blank and her eyes widen; it was straight out of a movie,” senior English and secondary ed major Kate O’Brien said.

Kate’s mom, Susan O’Brien, had previously found a lump on her breast, yet no one thought it could be cancer. They all simply thought it was a cyst, no big deal. “I guess when it’s your mother, cancer seems surreal and completely unthinkable,” O’Brien said.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, except for non-melanoma skin cancers. The chance of developing breast cancer at some time in a woman’s life is about 1 in 7. About 70 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no identifiable risk factors; 80 percent of all breast lumps are benign.

“I immediately thought that my mom is too young to die, that this couldn’t be happening,” O’Brien said. Because of the position of her mother’s tumor, Susan had to go through both chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The second leading cause of cancer death in women is breast cancer. In 2006, about 212,920 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in women living in the United States. Women living in the United States have the highest rate of breast cancer in the world.

“My mom would tell us that whenever she felt down, she’d close her eyes and picture the word ‘FAITH’ in pewter letters. It really helped her get through a crazy time,” O’Brien said.

Today, Susan is cancer-free. The good news, she now joins the over 2 million breast cancer survivors living in the United States. The bad news, not all women are as lucky as Susan O’Brien.

“I was in the sixth grade when my parents told my brother and I that my mom had found a lump on her breast. I guess I was just too excited about Christmas to even start to think about my mom being sick,” 22-year-old Noelle Penney said. “I didn’t understand that cancer, stage three breast cancer which was what my mom had, would most likely result in death.”

In 2006 alone, about 40,970 women died of breast cancer not even including women in previous years. Maryann Penney was one of those women who lost in the battle against breast cancer.

“My mom had cancer for six years, and most of the time during those years I tried not to think about it. I didn’t want to accept the fact that my mom was sick, so I would always act selfish towards her,” Penney said. “I surrounded myself with horrible people that led me to making some stupid mistakes.”

Having a mother with breast cancer can truly affect children in many ways. Some embrace the idea and spend as much time with their mother as possible, while others remove themselves from the situation. Breast cancer not only deeply affects women who are battling the deadly disease, but also their loved ones, especially if they have children.

“When the doctor told my mom she had less than three months to live, she didn’t sit around and sulk. She ordered gifts for all of her doctors and nurses that had taken care of her over the years, and brought them to the hospital for them all,” Penney said. “My mom was always positive, even when she knew she was going to die.”

Whether mothers live to tell their story of how they beat breast cancer, or pass away trying to get better, most children view their mothers the same way.

“Basically, my mom is a warrior,” O’Brien said. “When I think about how she fought her cancer head-on, I can’t do anything but respect her. She has shown me the strength I want to have if I have to go through something like breast cancer, but if I do, I’m okay. Maybe in the face of something scary, the image of the pewter letters that spell out ‘FAITH’ won’t seem so silly to me.”

“Now that I’m older, looking back at it I wish I could do it over again. I wish I could have spent more time with my mom,” Penney said. “I view my mother as an incredibly strong person after everything she went through.”

“Because of how my mom always put her kids first and loved us so much, I cannot wait to be a mom so I can do things with my children that my mother never got to do with us.”

Kaitlin Barr

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