How to talk to a mum who doesn't want to worry us?

My mum just told me yesterday that she has been diagnosed with stage 2 lobular cancer. She has an MRI in a week and then surgery and radiotherapy. She’d waited days before telling me and my siblings (all in our twenties), even seeing us for dinner last week and pretending everything was fine. She has been a full-time carer up until recently, and brought us up on her own, and she’s never liked us doing anything for her - she was even trying to dissuade us from going round yesterday because she thought the train journey was too long for us. The weekend has been strange - she has been overly cheerful, and then swinging to talking coldly and aggressively about her will, both seemingly to distance us.

I know it’s very early days, but I wondered if there were any devoted mums out there who might tell me how I can help someone who is so used to doing everything for others? (NB she even gets angry if we try to wash-up when we visit!)

I’m moving closer by ASAP, and so I’d also love to know what to expect in the next few months, fand how I might best make myself useful.


Hi Charlie,

I am a mum to 3 boys in their twenties and was diagnosed with breast cancer in December.

Telling the boys was very difficult, as a mum we are built to want to protect our kids (yes even at your age!) and it is hard to tell them something which you know will upset them. Don’t be too hard on your mum for delaying telling you, I expect she needed time to come to terms with it herself.

As for how you can help her I would say be there for when she wants to talk, take your lead from her; I expect she will have days where she just wants to talk about “normal” things.

She will probably need some practical help after surgery (for example she won’t be able to lift anything heavier than a kettle, or drive for a period_. So if she will let you offering to help with the shopping would be good (maybe do that after she has had the surgery or the pre-op consultation so that she realises she needs some help).

Equally importantly carry on with your own life as well. She won’t want your studies/job/family to be badly affected.

Keep posting on here and ask us for help when you need to, and don’t spend time googling other sites. There is a lot of wrong and out of date information out there.



Sorry to hear about your mum. Great to hear she has you and other family who will support her through the next few rollercoaster months.

A few comments from my own experience (if you click on my name, you can read my history so I won’t go into detail here).

Shock quickly gives way to practicality (talking about wills) and a desire for family and friends not to have to go through the same feelings of sadness and loss.

It’s feels very strange to know you have a serious illness when you feel perfectly fine and if you’re not used to people fussing around you, it can be a bit irritating when family start to treat you differently, especially when you are still very capable.

The worst bit of having BC is what it does to your head. The first thing you think about in the morning, the last thing you think about at night and a few hundred times in between. The sudden realisation that you’re not immortal. The thoughts that you won’t be here to do all the things you wanted to do like see children and grandchildren grow up.

Your mum isn’t trying to deliberately distance herself from you, just to protect you. She is used to being in control and suddenly finds herself in a situation over which she has very little. I’d suggest the following:

Offer to go along to appointments with her if you can. It’s really helpful to have someone along to take notes and for emotional support. Get informed about BC (but don’t Google - use sites such as this one and Macmillan for good quality info that doesn’t scaremonger!) It is so important that she understands and is happy with her treatment plan.

At the moment, I wouldn’t offer to do anything more from a practical point of view (shopping, washing up etc) as she is obviously capable but I would start to talk to her about how you might help out after surgery and radiotherapy.

Your mum sounds like someone who likes to help others and this might be a way to approach her so rather than it being about you helping her, she can help you to understand what she needs.

There are no easy answers and it is one hell of a rocky journey but great to know that you’ll be there to support her. Just let her set the pace.

Hugs to you both.

Laurie x

Lucky mum to have such caring children.

One small point to query. You said STAGE 2, I suspect that if she’s having surgery and rads (with no mention at the moment of chemo) that it’s GRADE 2, rather than STAGE 2. There’s a good leaflet in the Publications section that explains the difference between GRADE and STAGE, as there is a difference.

It sounds like at the moment she wants to deal with practicalities, so making practical suggestions might be the way to go. As suggested already, specific offers for the time of her surgery, such as driving her there, picking her up afterwards, getting the shopping, walking the dog, that kind of thing. The extent of physical help she’ll need depends on the sort of surgery she’s due to have. If she’s having a lump removed (WLE, or wide local excision) then her recovery time is likely to be a good bit shorter than if she’s having a mastectomy, with or without reconstruction.

You know her best, but is she the sort of person you could tell about how you’re feeling? Would it help to tell her things like, “I’m really glad you told me, mum. I would have felt bad if you’d tried to keep it from us and not give us the chance to be there for you like you’ve always been there for us.” And then take the lead from her. If she wants to have a normal relationship with her family where the regular stuff still goes on, then that will be what makes her feel better.

You are already aware that she might not WANT to share the emotional side of things with you, so it might be that you have to support each other (knowing that you are will probably be a big comfort for her), and encourage her to find support among her friends, or on these forums, or with a local support group. Some hospitals have a support centre attached or nearby, which her breast care nurse will be able to tell her about. So if it becomes clear that she doesn’t want to lean on her children for the emotional support, you might want to suggest other sources of support that she would feel comfortable with.

It’s a tough thing to be faced with but you, and she, will get through it with the appropriate support.


Hi Charlie B

After reading your post I have put for you below the link to one of BCC’s publications which you may find helpful. Also, if you would like someone to explain to you in person about the stage/grade of your mum’s cancer or anything else that is worrying you, then the helpline staff will be happy to do this. Calls to the helpline are free, 0808 800 6000 lines are open Mon-Fri 9-5 and Sat 9-2.

I hope these help. Take care,
Jo, Facilitator

Hi Charlie - you are all blessed to have each other, and so much love and care. She will not stop caring for/about you all just because she’s got cancer… so allow her to do what she can, when she can…

Practical things that I appreciated… My daughter came with me to see the breast care nurse, and listened to all the practical things about mastectomy. She then offered a “girly day out” to buy bras with pockets, cause she’d remembered I’d need them (eventually) It made a good day out of what might have been very grim… Later on, when I was healed and wanting something nicer, she drove me to a specialist place - it was too far for me at the time.

I appreciated my son keeping in touch by phone (which he was not very good at during chemo, when I felt rough!)

I don’t know how many people are likely to want to know how your mum is/results/surgery etc, but I found setting up a Caring Bridge website was brilliant - easy to do… and you or she can post whatever news you want to (how ever often you want to) and people can leave messages - I found that invaluable… you might research that for her…

I have appreciated my daughter being able to cope on the odd day when I’ve told her I feel rubbish and am fed up. She’s been supportive about it being OK to be fed up… She’s never said “you can always talk to me”, but she’s been there… solid… and it’s made a huge difference.

Your mum will come through this… hopefully you’ll all be closer… Jane

Sounds like your mum is a very very competent person and that is now threatened by her illness… did you every try to help a small child with something difficult, and get forcefully told “Go 'WAY, I can Manage!!”? i think there’s an element of that in your mum, desparately holding on to the fact that she can still manage. Particularly having got through the managing kids solo bit, three of you wow, kudos!!, and also then through the empty nest and managing on her own bit too, the next stage is pushing back at the idea of future old age when one day we won’t be able to manage, and that is threatening.

Also, when you bring up kids alone, it’s not okay to break down in front of them or admit there’s something you can’t do or can’t fix, so maybe her bahaviour is her way of making space to be sad on her own before putting her happy face back on and coming out all smiles for you. That’s one way of coping and keeping the sadness into only a small part of her life.

I’m sure she will get easier to be around as her understanding of the illness develops, and as she sees it’s not the end of her abilities. From what you wrote you are doing all the right things and are so much there for her, she will come to appreciate this so do persevere.

Thanks all for the replies. Just got back from mum’s and I’m a bit worried as she’s throwing out her clothes and trying to give me all her jewellery and talking in absolutes. She hasn’t been sleeping I don’t think. She has her MRI next week, so I think the waiting is unbearable. I hope things are clearer at least after that.