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Telling Your Kids About Breast Cancer

Patience, Honesty and Age Appropriateness

By Betsy Lee-Frye

Updated August 09, 2010

(LifeWire) - Few things are harder than looking into the eyes of a child and talking about breast cancer. Parents wonder what to say, how to say it, and just how much information their children really need. And while experts have advice, each woman needs to follow her own instincts and do what is right for her family.

When and Where to Talk

Most experts advise that parents talk to their children about the cancer as soon as they are able to manage their own emotions. When talking to your kids, you want to be able to support and inform them. This does not mean you should not cry or share your feelings, but be sure to wait until you can focus on the needs of your children and not your own.

It also may be best to wait until the whole family can be together, possibly with the support of another person, such as a close friend or relative. Make sure everyone is free of commitments so each person has the time and space to digest the news.

The best location for this important discussion will vary depending on the family. For some, home is the best place because everyone is comfortable and can retreat to his or her own rooms for time alone. It also allows children to react without worrying about other people around them. But for some families, an alternative location such as a park might be better. Think about where your family communicates best and how each individual might react.

What to Say

It is not necessary to follow a script, but it might be helpful to think about the topics you want to cover. For example, many women feel it is important to address the issue of hair loss. Talk about why people who have cancer lose their hair and, depending on the ages of your children, assure them that they will not lose their hair, too.

Remember, children will not react the same way as adults. So be prepared for everything from temper tantrums to a desire for extra cuddle time. The University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center offers resources, including coloring books, age-appropriate books and brochures.

Here are some age-specific tips on talking to your kids:

  • Under age 3: Even kids this young can sense a change. Use words in their vocabulary, like, "Mommy has a boo boo," or "Mommy needs medicine," to help them make sense of what is going on.
  • Preschool aged: At this age, children tend to focus on the concrete, like the side effects of drugs. Be sure to tell them that cancer is not contagious. Keep the conversation brief and be prepared to talk again.
  • Older children: When talking to children in this age group, try to find language they can understand. For example, if they have studied cells in school, use that knowledge to talk about cancer. Provide details about the treatment plan and acknowledge your fears without wallowing in them. Be sure to let them know that, for the most part, they will be able to maintain their activities and interests.
  • Teenagers: Teenagers know a lot about cancer, so they will likely be worried about survival rates, treatment plans and side effects. Girls may ask about the hereditary nature of the disease. Remember that only 5 to 10% of breast cancers are inherited, and if your family does have an extensive history of breast or ovarian cancer, genetic testing is available. Try to anticipate concerns and have that information available. After initially divulging the diagnosis, follow their lead. Ask what they would like to talk about. Be prepared for an emotional or even inappropriate response, either during the conversation or afterward. For teens who have a difficult time, encourage them to find an online or local support group.

The Importance of Honesty

Many parents may be tempted to keep their cancer diagnosis secret to protect their children. Experts advise against this. Children are able to discern even small changes in their environment and, if it is not addressed, they may draw erroneous conclusions. Let the children's school know what is going on. If your child seems to be having difficulty with your diagnosis, talk to a psychologist or recruit a favorite teacher. They can provide additional coping tips or might suggest some therapy.

Sources:

Davey, Maureen, Laurel Gulish, Julie Askew, Karen Godette and Nicole Childs. "Adolescents Coping With Mom's Breast Cancer: Developing Family Intervention Programs." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. Apr. 2005. 11 May 2008.

"For Parents: Talking to Kids About Cancer." Cancer Patient Care: Dana Farber Cancer Institute. 2008. Dana Farber Cancer Institute. 13 May 2008.

"How Do I Talk to People About My Diagnosis?" Cancer.org. 29 Jan. 2001. American Cancer Society. 13 May 2008.

"Straight Talk to Kids: How to Talk to Your Children About Cancer." New York University Cancer Institute. 2007. New York University Medical Center. 13 May 2008.

"Talking With Children About a Loved One's Cancer." University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Apr. 2008. University of Michigan. 13 May 2008.

Talking To Others About Breast Cancer

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Betsy Lee-Frye is an independent journalist living in Kansas City, Mo. She is a fellow with the Association of health Care Journalists. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications and Kansas City Magazine.
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