Grief, Depression, and Adjustment for Daughters of Women with Breast Cancer

The relationship between a mother and her daughter is unique. When a mother receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, the bond can change forever. The impact of a life-threatening issue and the ensuing treatment creates a new dynamic for the mother-daughter relationship. Children may become caregivers for their mothers and, depending on their own mental state prior to diagnosis, may develop significant psychological problems as a result. If the mother does not survive the cancer, the daughter may experience a grief that is unique to this situation. Heightened fear of developing breast cancer herself, the loss of the maternal relationship, guilt over caregiving, and general bereavement all mingle together to form a type of grief that is unlike any other.

David K. Wellisch of the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA theorized that a young woman experiences varying degrees of grief surrounding a breast cancer diagnosis and outcome. To test his theory, Wellisch evaluated two groups of women whose mothers either survived or died from breast cancer. He looked at the daughter’s age at the time of diagnosis, caregiving involvement, and prior history of depression in the daughters and mothers. Wellisch discovered that the women who had lost their mothers, and had been uninvolved in their care during the illness, had the highest levels of depression after. He also found that participants whose mothers died experienced more depression related to cancer and higher levels of cancer-related anxiety. This was especially true if the girls were younger than 12 years old at the time of diagnosis.

The women who had been most involved in their mothers’ care had the most significant level of grief following the death. One aspect that was not clearly reviewed, and should be addressed in future studies, was the grief resulting from the loss of the maternal-daughter relationship, regardless of whether the mother survived. A change in the nature of such a fundamental relationship is not tangible, and therefore may not be recognized as something a person would grieve over. However, for young daughters especially, the loss of the relationship they had prior to the cancer can represent a significant source of grief. Although these results shed new light into how breast cancer can affect even the youngest victims, further exploration is needed. “More systemic relational future research potentially should involve all family members in the families of women at high risk for breast cancer,” Wellisch said. This would provide a more comprehensive picture of all of the potential risk factors and protective mechanisms that could influence a young woman’s adjustment after such a significant life event.

Wellisch, David K., Sarah R. Ormseth, Narineh Hartoonian, and Jason E. Owen. A retrospective study predicting psychological vulnerability in adult daughters of breast cancer patients. Family, Systems & Health 30.3 (2012): 253-64. Print.

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  • madison

    October 31st, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    There will always be this fear that you are going to develop breast cancer too, especially if your mom dies form breast cancer like mine did. It’s as if you just somehow feel that this will be your fate too, and this really affects you quite deeply as a woman.

  • jen

    November 1st, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    never thought of it from this perspective!yes it is a valid point in that the daughter will face several challenges and will have raging questions in her head.

    now when I think of it,whenever someone in a family is diagnosed with a disorder the news not only affects that person but also those around the person.maybe they should have some form of mandatory family counseling unique to each disorder?

  • Bonnie

    November 1st, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    It’s the uncertainty of not knowing if this will be something that will personally affect you. You have already lost your mom, you are then worried about your own health and your own family, and that is just a lot of anxiety for one person to be experiencing. There are so many other elements wrapped up in breast cancer too, like feeling like you will be losing part of your feminine traits if you have to lose a breast, like wondering if this change in your body will then cause your husband to look at you differently, just a whole host of issues that come up when breast cancer is the issue.

  • Johnny T

    November 5th, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    I watched my sister grieve herself into bad health herself when my mom got sick and died. It was so sad to watch both of them suffering together, and neither could really help the other because they were so mired in sadness about each other. Very sad situation

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