My Mother's Breast: Daughters Face Their Mother's Cancer -- Laurie Tarkan

By Laurie Tarkan
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Mother-daughter relationships take on new meaning when breast cancer is involved. Emotional and genetic issues unite, but can also strain family ties. We chatted about this with Laurie Tarkan, author of  "My Mother's Breast".

The opinions expressed in this transcript are those of the guest and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD University: "Stories of Survivors: Your Breast Cancer Guide." Joining us now is our guest for today, Laurie Tarkan, author of My Mother's Breast: Daughters Face Their Mothers' Cancer.

Laurie, tell us about how you came to write My Mother's Breast. This is not a personal account, but a collection of stories of real mother-daughter relationships, correct?

Tarkan: Yes it is. Actually I'm a health journalist and I wrote an article on the subject for McCall's Magazine. But while researching the article and speaking with daughters whose mothers have breast cancer I realized that many daughters really felt completely alone in what they were going through. And there were no resources, books, support groups for daughters, so I felt like something like this would really be helpful to women. And personally, I guess I felt a connection with the daughters because of my own experience. My mother died when I was 11 years old. And though she didn't have breast cancer, she had a liver disorder, I felt like a lot of the emotions were similar.

Moderator: You mentioned a lack of support groups for daughters. Is that still the case? Are there joint support groups available for moms and daughters to attend together?

Tarkan: I think it has gotten better because since I've written the book, many hospitals have opened centers for women with high risk of breast cancer. And many of these centers now offer counseling and support groups so I think there's more out there because of that. There are groups like Share and Gilda's Club that offer family support groups.

Moderator: In the preface of your book you write about the experience of losing your own mother and how you were kept from knowing the extent of her illness. From that experience and from your research for the book, what advice would you give to mothers with younger children about how to discuss their illness?

Tarkan: My mother was sick in the early 70s and things have changed a lot since then. Today people are more open with children when talking about illness and serious topics like that, so I think that most experts recommend that you do talk to your children and what you say and how much detail you give depends on the age of the child. But not saying anything is what can be damaging because children always sense when something is wrong, and if you don't give them a realistic explanation, they are going to imagine something far worse than what is happening.

Moderator: What did you discover when you looked at the reversal of the caretaker role that can occur when mom gets sick?

Tarkan: This is one of the bigger issues that most daughters talk about. Caregiving typically falls on the shoulders of the daughter. Many of the women I interviewed talked about having to be the emotional and physical support to their mothers and taking care of your mother can be traumatic because the mother/daughter relationship is reversed. I think with breast cancer, because it can strike women at a young age, and therefore their daughters are young, they may not be emotionally prepared for this role reversal. This typically happens when we are older and our parents are elderly. So what I've heard from women is that they've put their lives on hold. They've postponed going to college, maybe even neglected their own families while taking care of their mother. So it's a tremendous, life-altering burden for some people.

Member: A friend of mine nearly lost her own family (a husband and a young child) when she spent so much time looking after her mom after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. If this ever happened to me, what advice do you have for balancing my roles of wife, mommy, and daughter?

Tarkan: I think it's easy to get swept up in taking care of your mother who's very sick and needs you but you're really not any help to anyone if you are stretched to your limit. So I think what experts recommend to caregivers is that you take care of yourself as well. You have to set limits and do things for yourself; otherwise you'll run out of resources and won't be able to help your mother. To do that you have to call on others. Hopefully, there are some available to help with the necessary caregiving. There's no real answer to how much time you can spend with someone who's sick, it's really what you're capable of. And everyone has a different threshold.

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