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Talking to Children About Breast Cancer

Reviewed by: Kathleen Coyne, MSS, LCSW

Updated October 18, 2012

If you are a parent, one of your biggest worries after a breast cancer diagnosis may be how to tell your child. That concern may arise again if you have a complication or if the cancer returns.

First, take time for yourself. You need a few days to get past the initial shock, understand your situation and think about treatment choices. Discuss what lies ahead with your doctor and your spouse or partner, or someone very close to you.

Talk with your child or children before you begin telling family members outside your household.

Why Kids Need to Know About Breast Cancer

It’s better for children of all ages if you tell them you have breast cancer instead of keeping it secret.

Children — even very young ones — can sense that something is wrong when you are under stress and household routines change. Many youngsters pick up on whispered worries by listening to adults talk. As a result, they may imagine something more terrible than what you’re trying to keep hidden. 

Even if you’ve sworn others to secrecy, it won’t take long before your child hears about your medical situation from someone else. That information may be wrong and scary.

By telling your child, you choose what to say. This lets you communicate a reassuring, supportive and hopeful message. That builds trust, promotes ongoing discussion and protects your child emotionally. Including your children in your cancer experience can be an opportunity to teach them healthy coping strategies they can use the rest of their lives.

Tips for Telling Kids About Breast Cancer

This advice can help you talk with children of any age:

    Prepare

  • Think ahead about what you want to say. You might want to practice your main message (one or two sentences) aloud.
  • Enlist the support of your partner or another adult family member who will be available to you and your child throughout your treatment.
  • If you have more than one child, consider whether to tell them one at a time or in a group. You may need to explain the same things in different ways, based on their ages or learning styles.
  • Pick a quiet time when your child is rested.
  • It’s OK to show emotion or cry, so long as you stay calm. If you are very upset, wait until you can focus on your child.   
  • Use words your child understands.
  • Keep your explanation simple. You don’t have to talk about everything at once.
  • As you talk, reassure children by telling them you love them. Sitting close, holding or hugging also expresses love.
  • If children don’t want to be close physically or talk about their feelings, encourage and model ways to express feelings. You might say, “It’s OK to feel sad or angry. I want you tell me when you are feeling that way.”

 What to Talk About

  • Tell your child you have breast cancer. Explain that there are many types of cancer and that it is not contagious.
  • Emphasize to children, including teenagers, that nothing they did or thought caused you to develop breast cancer, or caused the cancer to return.
  • Explain what treatment you will have, if you know.
  • Talk about how their daily lives might be affected when you are getting treatment. Explain who will stay with them, make meals, take them to sports or arts practices, etc.
  • From time to time, ask children to explain back what you’ve said. This lets you quickly correct misunderstandings and respond to questions or worries they might voice. 
  • Let children know who else is being told, so they can turn to those people for support.
  • Answer only the questions that children ask. Tell them they can always ask you questions.
  • When you don’t know an answer, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and tell you.”

If your child can’t listen anymore or cuts the talk short to go play, that’s normal. You can continue another time. There will be more talks ahead.

When Mom Has Breast Cancer: How to Say It

Below are suggestions for talking with children, by age. The advice for nearby ages may be helpful as well:

2-5 year olds

  • “There is something in my breast called breast cancer. The doctors are going to take it away.” (If you have a lump, you can call the breast cancer “a lump” or “a bump.”)
  • “You can’t catch breast cancer from me.”
  • “I have to be in the hospital for a little while, but Grandma will come and stay with you. You and I can talk on the phone while I’m there.”

       More tips for this age group:

  • Use a stuffed animal or doll to explain where the cancer is located.
  • Keep your answers to questions brief, to fit attention spans.
  • Physical play is important to handle feelings.

6-10 year olds

  • “No one knows why I got breast cancer. But you can’t catch it from me, and you didn’t do anything to make it happen.”
  • “To get better, I’ll be taking strong medicine that can make my hair fall out. I’ll still be the same person inside, and my hair will grow back.”
  • “There may be times while I’m getting well that I won’t have much energy. Your uncle will take you to softball practice if I can’t.”

 More tips for this age group:

  • They may already know about cancer. Be ready to answer questions.
  • Talk about how family routines might change, for how long and why.
  • Reassure them that they will be cared for. Suggest simple, age-appropriate ways to help you. Spend time together so children feel that life goes on despite your treatment.

11-13 year olds

  • “My doctors know a lot about my type of breast cancer and how to help me.”
  • “I will be taking medicine for a long time to be sure I’m doing everything I can to get better.”
  • “You might want to let Katie know what’s happening. It helps to have a good friend who understands.”

 More tips for this age group:

  • Questions can be answered in more detail.
  • Ask how they want to be involved. Offer examples such as watering the garden or bringing you a drink when you are tired.
  • Offer to help them choose what to say to their friends.

14-18 year olds

  • “There are lots of good treatments for breast cancer these days. I’ll tell you what I know about the treatments my doctors are giving me.”
  • “I may need some help with chores, but I want you to be able to continue your normal activities.”
  • “I will keep you updated about what’s going on and will answer any questions you have.”

 More tips for this age group:

  • They understand the serious nature of breast cancer and want to talk on an adult level.
  • Make time to be with them for emotional support.
  • Talk to your oncologist if you have concerns about possible risks of breast cancer for your children. This will help you answer their questions.
  • If your teenage daughter raises concerns about her own breast health, you may want to talk to the doctor together for reassurance and guidance.
  • Friends are central to teenagers’ lives. Make sure they are able to socialize outside the family.
  • Teens may be embarrassed or angry about your appearance or the situation and may express feelings that seem hurtful or out-of-line. Although this may upset you, always keep communication open, maintain your authority as a parent and enforce your family’s rules and expectations.

Resources for Help

American Cancer Society, “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer”

Cancer in Our Family: Helping Children Cope With a Parent’s Illness, 2ndedition (2012), Sue P. Heiney, PhD, RN and Joan F. Hermann, MSW, LSW; American Cancer Society.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Cope (video, 1996)  

How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness, 2ndedition (2011), Kathleen McCue, MA, CCLS and Ron Bonn; St. Martin’s.  

NYU Cancer Institute, “Straight Talk to Kids”

Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, “Talking to Kids and Teens About Cancer”

When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children (2004), WendyS. Harpham, MD; HarperCollins.

This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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