Can A Broken Heart Give You Breast Cancer?


I remember very well the week leading up to my son’s death. It was Easter of 2008. He called me on my cell phone as we were driving home from Cracker Barrel, where we had our usual Sunday breakfast. After some trivial chitchat, his tone turned serious. “I’m coming over today. I need to see you guys.” I told him that was fine, never actually expecting him to show up. I had been disappointed so many times.

James was 20 years old that Spring, and he had been troubled for quite some time. He had decided after high school to move in with friends and try working for a while before college. He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known but had the affliction that many intellectually gifted kids share. He couldn’t function very well in the real world.

Eventually, he turned to drugs to cope with the mental demons that tortured him. First it was just a little pot to calm down and focus. Then it was cocaine at parties. Finally, he turned to heroin. I would pick him up sometimes to take him to dinner and watch as he nodded slowly back and forth, his eyes rolling back in his head. At the time, I thought he was just staying up too late, overextending himself. Little did I know.

James drifted from one friend’s home to another with his pathetic little cardboard box of possessions: a few movies, some pictures, and some old letters and birthday cards. He rarely worked any more because the drugs had such a hold on him. When his welcome wore thin time after time, he would move on like a leaf caught in a summer wind, stopping for a moment only to be picked up and carried to the next spot. And he rarely visited home. I think that under the facade of the carefree clown he was hurting and embarrassed.

That Sunday afternoon I was amazed when he opened the front door and walked into the living room wearing his black puffy ski jacket, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He always wore that silly thing, even when it was warm outside. I was hugely pregnant with my youngest child, and he immediately came over to touch my belly as he always did. He loved babies and children and was really looking forward to being a dad someday.

James stayed for a while, but I could tell that he was restless and antsy. He could no longer go more than a few hours without a “fix”. While the rest of the family watched “American Gangster”, he sat alone in the back bedroom, typing furiously on the computer. He was typing a letter to the girl who had finally had enough of his addiction and let him go, the only girl who had ever really reached him, if only temporarily. Losing her broke his heart, and in retrospect, I believe he was writing a goodbye letter.

We were still watching the movie when he came out and announced that his ride was on the way. He sat next to me on the couch and put his head on my shoulder like he used to when he was a little boy. We stayed that way until the sound of a horn blowing in the driveway broke the spell. He got up to leave “I love you Mom.” He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed and just held on. I remember thinking that something was off; he was being uncharacteristically vulnerable.

I didn’t hear any more from James that next week. My husband and I were busy making preparations for our new baby, who was now almost 10 days overdue. I finally gave birth to a 10 pound, 1 ounce baby girl on Friday and spent the night in the hospital. Although I had tried for a home birth, I ended up having a fourth C-section. When I came home on Saturday, I was exhausted and in pain.

By Sunday, after a few sleepless nights, I put our new baby in bed with me so she could nurse at will and maybe, just maybe, I could finally rest. It worked. I slept like a rock that night, barely regaining consciousness for feedings and diaper changes. Then, at 3am, I woke with a start, heart pounding and eyes wide open. I wasn’t having a nightmare. I looked over at the baby sleeping soundly beside me. I sat up on the edge of the bed and a sense of dread washed over me. I wasn’t sure at the time how to define the feeling, other than to say that something felt terribly wrong.

The next morning, everything seemed normal again and I chalked my odd sensation up to exhaustion. My husband and I spent the day with the baby, taking her in for her first doctor’s appointment and just enjoying our time as a family. I felt happy that day. I had waited so long and suffered so much to have one more child, and now she was here. Nothing in the world could have compared in that moment.

The phone rang at about 7pm that Monday night. I was getting tired, so I ignored the call. But the calller was persistent, and the ringing kept on and on. Finally, my husband answered. I could hear my sister’s frantic voice on the line. “Where is Lisa? Is she holding the baby?” My husband told her that I was. “Don’t let her stand up with the baby. Make sure she’s sitting down!” I knew instinctively why she was calling. I didn’t need to hear anymore. One of James’ druggie friends had found her number in his phone and remembered visiting her. He called her in a panic. James was dead, his cold lifeless body on the living room floor. His addiction had won.

Looking back at that week, I know now that James meant it when he said “I have to see you”. He knew that it would mean a lot to me someday that I got to hold him one last time. He once told me in a rare candid moment that he felt like he had lived out his entire twenties even though he was only 19 at the time. The weight of bad decisions and wasted opportunities had become too much to bear.

Shortly after James passed away, I would come to find out why I woke from a dead sleep that fateful Sunday night.  A piece of my soul had just been ripped from me. His time of death was 3am.



24 thoughts on “Can A Broken Heart Give You Breast Cancer?

  1. Despite being about 13 or 14 at the time, I was also immediately aware that something was wrong the last night we saw him. That year, James and I had grown closer than we ever had been. Partly because I wasn’t an obnoxious little brother any more, but also because I think he genuinely enjoyed being able to talk to me. I always found it a little curious that we never talked about him, or his life, but always about me; where I wanted to go when I was older, what profession I would strive for, and what kind of person I would be. Almost desperately, like he was living vicariously through me, James would give me advice and I think it was so I didn’t make the same mistakes that he had made.

    He would warn me against settling in for a few years before college, falling into bad crowds of people, or becoming something that I am not. Truly, I treasured every second that I got to spend with him during his sporadic visits home. The last time that I saw him, I was sitting on my bed doing homework. After the movie, he walked in and wrapped his arms around me tightly and I recall being instantly weirded out by the situation. I knew he cared about me, but he never hugged me or displayed tokens of affection that way. As I went to hug him back, he simply said “I love you” as he turned to leave. He never did that.

    Looking back, I think that James was at the end of his rope. As you mentioned, he didn’t seem to fit into the real world aside from parties and holiday dinners, and as the years went by he became more and more distant. Ultimately, I think his death was a testament to the fact that a brilliant mind is a terrible thing to waste. However, the silver lining of our suffering is that I am constantly reminded to walk the straight and narrow so that one day, I can be successful enough for the both of us. He would like that.

    • Thank you. All of these experiences make you grateful for every day that you can share with those you love. I must say, though, that I’m definitely ready for fewer challenges in the future!

    • It definitely straightened my priorities out in a hurry. When people complain about stupid, trivial things I really have to bite my tongue. It seems like they have never faced anything really hard in their entire lives. They should be thankful every day for the gifts right in front of them.

      • Thanks so much for visiting my blog. I’m so sorry about your beautiful son as well. He sounds like he was very special. I know what you mean about people being mean to their kids. I always think it’s so messed up that wonderful, caring people are infertile and those who can get pregnant at the drop of a hat are often useless parents.

    • Thank you so much. Grief is a work in progress. When you think you’ve turned the corner, it sneaks up on you again, especially with what we’ve been through recently.

  2. I just came across your blog-randomly, probably for a reason. I was goggling “can i run a half marathon while undergoing chemo?’ and you popped up.

    My name is Cynthia, i’m 30 years old and four months ago was diagnosed with Stage 2 infiltrating ductal carcinoma. After my surgery, like you, they discovered it has spread to my lymph nodes.
    Your post- Can i broken heart give you cancer? hit hard. hit home.
    Thank you for sharing.
    In july of 2011, i lost my partner of 8 years to suicide.
    Together, i feel like we can answer this question with out a doubt in our minds.

    I’m terribly sorry for your lost. Grief is debilitating.

    I’m embarking on chemotherapy next week, i don’t seem to have a choice.

    I’m glad i found you and your blog.
    Would you like to be pen pals? If any time you would like to write…

    thank you again, you are an inspiration.

    • Cynthia, I was deeply touched by your comment on many levels. First, I am so sorry you have to face this diagnosis at 30. You should be doing so many other things right now besides sitting in a chemo chair.

      And my heart breaks for your loss. It’s such a helpless feeling to be losing someone right before your eyes with no power to stop it. I hope that you’ve found some peace and happiness since then.

      I would love to keep in touch with you and offer support in any way I can. I’ve been through this for long enough now that I can definitely relate to what you’re going through and give you some tips on how to survive it better.

      My e-mail is Send me a note and let me know what your regimen will be for chemo.

  3. I’m so sad and sorry for you, your family and your son. I read your post and couldn’t help but draw some parallels with my own (only) son who is also James and also 20. He has found the past 18 months, my cancer diagnosis and treatment and “the unfairness of it all” as he puts it, extremely difficult. I lost three children during pregnancy which was heartbreaking and seeing James so anguished is deeply upsetting. Yes, I think heartbreak can contribute to breast cancer and breast cancer causes plenty of heartbreak for all involved.

    • I’m sorry your James is taking things so rough. Boys are devoted to their mothers, and he is probably terrified of losing you and unsure how to process all of it. My second son is now 20, and he keeps to himself quite a bit, wrapped up in his video games, but I know that he worries in his own way. He tries to act like everything is normal to comfort himself.

      Like you, I have lost several pregnancies. It’s hard to explain to people how hard that grief is. You are thrilled to have that little person growing inside of you, and you form an immediate attachment from the moment you find out. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

      Here’s to sunny, carefree days ahead for both of us and for our children! We’ve all earned it.

  4. Wow. I was following up your comment to Stemgirl1 about Taxol studies (whether it works and for what), since having been diagnosed with two different types of invasive breast cancers this year means I get to join the club.

    I get it. I get what you’ve written on so many levels even though I didn’t manage to have children myself. And I’ve somehow missed the chemo party, given my oncogene profile. Next it’s “just” finishing surgery and trialing tamoxifen. I say trial because, like your son, I’ve been plagued by depression in one form or another, and my oncologist is wise enough to know some cures can kill, and tamoxifen is known for inciting depression as it sucks the rest of a woman’s estrogen away.

    You are a gifted writer. I am going to enjoy reading the rest of your blog, and am certain I will find it educational and instructive. Write On!!!

    • First, thank you so much for visiting and for your wonderful comments. Second, I’m really sorry you are joining our club, even though I know I’ll enjoy your company! It sounds like you’ve found an intelligent and caring doctor, which is a feat in itself these days. Don’t feel bad about missing the chemo party, the party favors suck!

      As for Tamoxifen, I am really questioning whether I will put myself and my body through that. I am very prone to hormonal depression anyway, especially now with chemo destroying my ovaries. The last thing I want is to add more fuel to the fire. I am definitely leaning toward more natural ways to deal with estrogen metabolism.

      I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there is a test available to see if you metabolize Tamoxifen properly. If not, it is useless for you.

  5. I am so sorry for your pain. James sounds like he was a wonderful person who slipped down the wrong road and lost himself. I often wish there was a way to stop and reality check the brilliant, beautiful dreamers. I wish I had known him.

  6. I am so sorry to read this. What a tragedy.{hug}.
    Going back to your title, I think it can. It’s hard to really understand how intertwined our mind and bodies are, but intertwined they are.

    • Thanks for the hug! I’ll take all of those I can get. I think very few people recognize the power of the human mind, including doctors. That’s why we need to surround ourselves with positive messages and people.

  7. I am so sorry for you and your family. My son is 23 and bipolar, he lives on the streets of San Francisco and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t worry about something happening to him or that his depression will lead him to even darker places. He also has a substance abuse problem but that is secondary to his mental illness, it has developed because he self medicates. He is also a wonderfully creative genius that cannot fit in to the society and life we live in.

    I definitely believe there is a link between stress, grief, loss and breast cancer. At a certain point, there is only so much one can handle or process and then the body breaks down. I am a year past diagnosis and my emotions and thoughts changed many times over that year. I am so very sorry that you now belong to the club that no one wants to join in addition to this tragedy, it seems so very unfair. I used to not think in those terms, but I see it in friends who have been diagnosed – no matter how much gratitude one can muster there is still a sense of the unjust and you have been given an extremely difficult road to travel.

    My heart goes out to you, you seem like an extraordinarily strong and capable woman so I know even though there will be challenges and more heartache you will not falter along this path. Keep writing, it is the most wonderfully cathartic process – sometimes it feels like I vomit up the words and then feel cleansed afterwards.

    Blessings and hugs to you.

    • Thank you so much for those beautiful words. I can’t imagine how hard this is for you to go through while you worry constantly about your son. I’m so sorry. I sincerely hope and pray that he finds his way without doing too much damage to himself physically or emotionally. And I hope that you’re able to find some peace occasionally. Why can’t they stay babies forever?

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