How to talk to your children about your metastatic breast cancer diagnosis
For many parents, it’s a first instinct to try to protect children from news about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. One of the hardest parts of telling children about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is that it is not curable, and that treatment is ongoing. But it’s important to be as honest as possible.
Christina Wise, MA, GC-C, children and teen program coordinator for Cancer Support Community Greater Philadelphia, says, “I always encourage honesty because most of the time kids can sense that something is going on. Kids might notice that there is whispering, or that a parent goes to the other room to talk when the phone rings.”
Experts say that there is no right or wrong way to talk to children about a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, although there are tips to guide the conversation:
- Don’t assume children, even very young ones, won’t find out if you don’t tell them
- Use accurate, specific words that are age- and developmentally appropriate. Since you know your child best, you may already know what may work well
- Be honest, but emphasize that your doctors have medicines that they hope will help you
- Let them know what they can expect in their day-to-day experience, for example: “On treatment days, I’ll be tired, so Uncle Pete will pick you up from softball practice.”
- Tell them you will let them know if there are changes in your health situation
- Invite them to ask questions, and check in with them for regular follow-up conversations
- Let them know there are other trusted adults they can also talk to about the cancer, and let them know who those adults are
If your child is old enough to use the Internet, suggest looking at trusted websites together if they want to understand more about your diagnosis. If you decide to read about breast cancer online with your child, one thing to keep in mind is that looking at survival statistics can sometimes be both upsetting and confusing, because the numbers are based on large groups of people and don’t reflect the experiences of any one individual.
How you talk to your children about your diagnosis also depends on their age.
Talking to your younger children
When sharing the news with children under age 10, keep things as simple as you can:
- Let them know there is cancer in your body and that doctors will treat it. You can point to the areas of your body or use a doll, or pictures, to communicate with small children.
- Explain to them that the cancer is not contagious and that they cannot “catch” it from you.
- Very young children (ages 3 to 6) may have difficulty understanding that the cancer is not their fault or that your treatment is not punishment for something they did. Reassure them that what’s happening has nothing to do with anything they did or thought, and let them know that you love them.
- Tell children how their daily routines may change. For instance, “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Dad will help you get ready for school.”
- Let them know about side effects you may experience, such as hair loss or fatigue. Preparing children ahead of time can reduce any fear or anxiety they may have.
- Schedule regular time to be together and just have fun, whether it’s watching a funny movie or playing a game.
Talking to your older children
When talking with older children and teens, it’s OK to share more specific information about your diagnosis:
- Encourage them to ask questions, and provide detailed answers.
- Let them know there will be side effects such as hair loss, nausea, or fatigue.
- Be prepared for questions about death. You could let them know that yes, metastatic breast cancer is serious, but your doctors are prescribing treatments to help you live as long as possible.
- Children 7 to 12 years old may need help with anxiety, which can sometimes show up as headaches or stomachaches. Ask the social worker at your cancer center for a referral to a counselor or reach out to extended family for extra support for your child.
- It’s also important for teenagers to have a safe space to vent their feelings outside of the family. If you can, enlist the help of a trusted family friend or counselor.
- Have regular family time, such as sharing meals or watching favorite TV shows together.