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Talking to Your Children

Some women feel that they should shield their young children from the fact that they have breast cancer, but experts do not think that this is the best thing to do. Children are not as naïve as we think and can sense when something is wrong. They will pick up on anxiety in the home and changes in schedules. They have an awareness that we sometimes do not give them credit for and they may know something is quite wrong before you tell them.[1]

Here are some tips to follow when planning how to talk to your children:

  • Think about what you will say to your children.
  • Use simple terminology during the conversation. Experts say it is best to name the illness instead of making up names for it.
  • At the end of the conversation, make sure they know that they cannot catch it from being with you.
  • Discuss your treatment plan with them. Tell them how powerful the medicines are and that they can make you sick sometimes.
  • Above all, let your children know that they are still an important part of the family, but things will be different for a while.

In general, you should give them the information in a very straightforward manner. You should not try to hide your illness, as that can send a message that these topics are not to be discussed openly. You also risk the possibility of your children finding out about your breast cancer from someone else.1 Children can sometimes misinterpret what you are telling them and blame themselves for your illness. The older the child, the more they will understand. You know your child and you can determine how much information you should share. Depending on the child’s age, you may even let them share some of the duties that you would normally take care of, making them feel like part of the treatment plan.

It may be best to have your spouse with you when you have this conversation with your children. The both of you may want to discuss what you will say before talking to the children, so that you are both in agreement as to what is shared. Approaching the children together will also make it clear that your family must support one another when someone is sick. This can be a valuable life lesson.

It will also allow you to tell your children what is to be expected of them. If they are able to see that there is a plan in place already and that they are included in that plan in some way, they will feel more secure about the situation. Find ways for them to help you, even if it is a little task. They are on this journey with you and they will want to help you.

Struggling With the News

It is a possibility that your children will not initially handle the diagnosis as well as you would like. You should prepare yourself either way. The following are signs that your child is struggling with the changes that are taking place and are not handling it well:

  • Regression (acting younger than they used to, ex. bed-wetting after having been potty trained for some time)
  • Changes in their sleeping patterns or eating habits
  • Decline in school performance
  • Behavioral changes (at home or school)
  • Fighting or arguing with friends/acting out
  • Withdrawal from normal activities

If you have teenagers, you will face different challenges than what you would with younger children. Teenagers are going to be more aware of breast cancer because of exposure to television, hearing people talk at school, their friends and social media. They also have access to the internet where they can read about breast cancer.

Regardless of what they know, they need to hear about your diagnosis from you and how it will affect them. They may have struggles along the journey and it will help if they have a trusted adult outside your immediate family that they can talk to—a close relative, a family friend, a minister, a teacher or counselor at school.2

Breast cancer does not only affect you, but your family as well. As a unit, you should all sit down and discuss the changes that may take place and allow everyone to determine how they can help. Pulling together as a team will be healthy for all of you and one day, each person can look back and be proud of helping mommy fight breast cancer.

References

1 NYU Langone Medical Center (2011) Straight Talk to Kids. Retrieved from the NYU Cancer Institute at cancer.med.nyu.edu/patients/patient-care/supportive-services/straight-talk-kids#whatis

2 National Cancer Institute.  (December 2010) When Your Parent Has Cancer – A Guide for Teens. NIH Publication No. 11-5734. Retrieved from the National Cancer Institute at: nci.nih.gov/cancertopics/coping/When-Your-Parent-Has-Cancer.pdf

i] Forrest, Gillian, Caroline Plumb, Sue Ziebland, and Alan Stein. (13 April 2006) Breast cancer in the family – children’s perceptions of their mother’s cancer and its initial treatment: qualitative study. BMJ 332: 998.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.