How To Tell Your Child You Have Breast Cancer
A few of my newly diagnosed readers have intimated to me that they are having some difficulty with how to tell their children they have breast cancer. I do have a little experience with this, and I have asked a friend, a child psychologist, for some advice. Here are our best tips on how to tell your child you have breast cancer. My heart goes out to everyone concerned.
To Tell Or Not To Tell…
Experts recommend that the sooner you tell your children that you have breast cancer, the better. Mothers may not want to distract their children from their daily activities or be a cause of them worrying, but older children especially deserve to be told.
Children are very perceptive and know that you are not feeling well, so not talking about your breast cancer may bring on anxiety and fear for them. Telling them shows your children that you have confidence in their ability to cope and decreases their feelings of being useless during your breast cancer treatment.
Also, by not telling them, you risk that someone else might tell them and in so doing, might not have the sensitivity of telling them all they should know in a kind and loving way.
Age Is A Factor
Age is an important factor when deciding what to tell a child about a breast cancer diagnosis. Your child should be told the truth in such a way that they are able to understand and prepare themselves for the changes that will happen in the family. All kids thrive on routine – it helps them to feel safe. When life becomes unpredictable, they will need help adjusting to the changes.
All children need the following basic information:
- The type of cancer that you have
- The part of the body where the cancer is
- The treatment you will receive
- How their own lives will be affected
Telling Younger Children – Up to 8 Years
Young children won’t need a lot of detailed information but they do need to understand the family’s concerns and be told the above 4 things. Younger children can also be told that the body is made up of lots of different parts and that when someone has cancer, it means that something has gone wrong with one of these parts and it has stopped doing what it’s supposed to do, that part of the body is no longer normal.
They are able to understand that a bunch of bad cells started to grow and that’s called a tumor and that the tumor (or the bad cells) should not be there. Cancer can spread and grow into other parts of a person’s body, so the person needs treatment to either take out the tumor or stop the bad cells from spreading to other places. Some children may not have any questions at first, but invite them to ask you later if they think of any.
Telling Older Children & Teens
Older children (8-12 yrs) and teens will need to know more. Teens are busy testing their independence and pushing their limits, and they will have a very different set of concerns from a 5-year-old who needs parents for basic care giving.
Older children may be able to understand a more complex discussion of cancer – they may want to see pictures of cancer cells or read about cancer treatment. Again, encourage them to ask questions and answer the best way you can. If they ask something you can’t answer, promise to get them the information they request. They will appreciate this.
11 Tips For Telling Your Child You Have Breast Cancer
- Set up a quiet time when you won’t be disturbed. If you have more than one child, you may want to talk to each child alone so that information can be tailored to each child’s age and understanding. Be aware that each child will respond differently – by telling them separately, you can pay close attention to how each child responds. Each child may also be more willing to ask questions when away from the other children and possible distractions.
- You may also want to include another family member to whom your child feels close, for extra support.
- Turn off your cell phone, put the pets outside, and don’t answer the door while you are having this talk. If you stop to deal with distractions when your child is opening up to you, the child may find it more difficult to try again.
- Plan ahead of time what you want to say and how to answer questions on a level that each child is able to understand. It’s good if you can lay the groundwork for an open line of communication with the child, a way for the child to come to you with their concerns, needs, and fears. If you can start this and keep it going by regularly checking in with each child during and after your cancer treatments, it can be a great comfort to them and help them to feel you aren’t hiding anything.
- Make sure to stress that you will be getting good care and treatment and that new and better cancer treatments are being discovered every day.
- Help your children know what to expect during your breast cancer treatments so they will not be surprised about your lack of energy or change of appearance. You don’t have to tell them everything at once. You can give the information in small doses so that they will not be overwhelmed.
- Make sure your kids understand that cancer and chemotherapy treatments are not permanent conditions. There will come a day when you will be done with your treatments and that you and your doctors will do everything possible to help you regain your health.
- Because children tend to feel that they are the center of the world, they might feel that something they did or didn’t do might have caused your cancer. Studies show that most children believe this at some point during the cancer experience. It’s a good idea to reassure them by saying something like, “The doctors have told us that no one can cause someone else to get cancer — it’s nothing that any of us made happen.” It’s better not to wait to see if children bring this up because they could be feeling guilty without saying so.
- Make sure your kids know that cancer is not contagious and they cannot catch it. They also need to know that not everyone dies from it. It’s a good idea to correct these ideas before the child has a chance to worry.
- Let your children express their fears, confusion, anger or tears. Comfort them and let them know that you care, and allow them to express their feelings so that they will be able to move through this journey with you.
- Try to keep a positive outlook but know that there will be days when you might not cope so well. You could explain to your kids that you might have difficult days with pain from surgery or medication, and tell them those are the days when you will need them to be extra helpful.
Helpful Children’s Books
I also recommend two further resources:
“Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings” by Ellen McVicker and Nanci Hersh. It uses clear, candid text, the illustrations are yummy, and it is a touching resource that can be used to educate and support children who are facing the cancer of a loved one. The book is available in both English and Spanish and you can purchase it by clicking on the link. There is a lot of information on the website, I highly recommend you pay it a visit.
“In Mommy’s Garden: A Book To Help Explain Cancer To Young Children” by Neyal J. Ammary and Christopher Risch. Also available in both English and Spanish, the text in the book is simple and easy to understand, the characters in the illustrations were created with multicultural skin tones and without faces, so that children can easily identify with the characters regardless of their race and they can imagine their loved one’s face in place of the faceless character. The story plot revolves around the narration of a little girl whose mother has cancer. She talks about how her mom explained cancer to her by comparing weeds in a garden to cancer cells in the human body. The book also touches upon concerns of children including fear of it being contagious and the child’s emotions when the mother’s weakness from her medical treatments makes her unable to play with her daughter. Click on the link to find out more or to order the book.
American Cancer Society
I send my love to everyone taking this journey right now. If you would like my help with getting through breast cancer in an inspiring and ultra-healthy way, please sign up for my free e-newsletters on the right, or “like” me on Facebook (MarnieClark.com) and I’ll do my utmost to keep you informed and empowered on your healing journey… and beyond.