Updated: Jan 25
Your head’s spinning. A breast cancer diagnosis has you feeling shocked, upset, anxious, confused (enter your adjective). Then it hits you: how will you tell your children that you have breast cancer? As panicked as you feel, the thought of telling your children the news is maybe even more terrifying.
There’s no right or wrong way to let your children know about your breast cancer (although it’s not recommended that you keep your diagnosis a secret). Remember that everyone is different and that you know your children better than anyone else, including the way to break the news with them. There’s no easy way to tell your kids you have cancer, but here are few things to keep in mind when you have that conversation.
Find a Personal Level of Comfort First
One of the safety measures flight attendants mention to passengers before takeoff is the importance of putting on your oxygen mask before you can help children. Keep that concept in mind before you share the news with your children. In other words, take however much time you need to process the information, so you’re calm when you talk with them.
Plan what you will say in advance
You don’t need a polished, prepared speech, but it will help to have a guideline in mind for what you want to say and answers to questions they are likely to ask. For example, they may want to know what cancer is in a general sense and how it will affect your everyday life.
Consider a Gradual Roll-Out of the Information
Trying to share the information at one time can make a stressful and challenging time much harder. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, parents should consider sharing the information with children in multiple, brief conversations to allow them to digest the information. Sharing the information as you receive it is a good strategy, particularly with my teenage children.
Offer Age-Appropriate Information
There’s an endless supply of euphemisms to describe cancer to children, especially when it involves young children. Before you choose one, make sure you have a solid grasp of your situation, what you’re facing, and what treatment you’ll need.
Young children—toddlers and preschoolers—will probably be satisfied with bite-sized explanations that can be updated as treatment progresses, although you should be prepared to repeat them often. Share as much information as you can openly and honestly. Offering consistent, age-appropriate simple facts can help children cope—” Mom’s sick. It’s called cancer.” There are, thankfully, plenty of kid-friendly books that can help guide you:
Older kids will ask tougher questions that should be answered with cautious honesty.
Lessen Fears with Transparency
Whether it’s letting them know that there may be changes to their routines, explaining who will care for them while mom is unwell, or being open about sad or angry feelings, is the way to go. While you don’t want to overwhelm or panic children, it’s okay to let them know what you’re feeling. You can say, “I’m really sad. I’m waiting to hear from the doctor.”
Focus on the Positives
Even though you may feel beleaguered and uncertain, try as much as possible to be positive for your kids. For example, let them know that you’re getting excellent care. Talk to them about the promising survival rates for breast cancer. Your goal is to reassure them without offering guarantees for the future.
Eliminate Possible Misconceptions
Young children can have misconceptions about your disease. For instance, they may think that they did something that caused you to get sick. Make sure they know that no one is to blame for your cancer. They may also think your cancer is contagious, like a cold, and worry that they can catch it if they get too close to you. Take time to explain how cancer works and that hugging you won’t put them at risk.
Prepare Them for Possible Visible Changes in Your Appearance
The effects of cancer can shake children. Let them know that cancer treatment is strong so it can work hard to make you better and that it may cause you to look and feel different from weight and hair loss. Explain that you may sometimes be very weak, tired, or sick at times, but you will still be their parent.
Be Ready for Questions
Your kids will likely have questions, including some you may not have considered. Recognize that their questions will probably be ongoing and may be uttered at any time. Give them the opportunity to ask anything they have on their mind.
Realize that some of the questions may be difficult questions to answer. Be prepared for your children to ask whether you will die. Explain that you have great doctors taking care of you. Also, don’t be afraid of being emotional—it may help children process their feelings. It’s okay to cry together.
Answering honestly and appropriately can help put them at ease and remove some of the uncertainty and fear of what it means to have a mom living with breast cancer.
Finally, make sure to remind your children that they are now and always will be loved. Cancer won’t change that.
Explore the extensive resources available at Survivingbreastcancer.org, and become part of our empowering community, including our Breast Cancer Survivor & Friends Meet and Greets. We’re always here for you!