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Should I Tell My Kids I Have Breast Cancer?

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Updated August 16, 2010

Mother and Daughter

Mother and Daughter

National Cancer Institute, Linda Bartlett (photographer)
Question: Should I Tell My Kids I Have Breast Cancer?
Just thinking about telling your kids that you have breast cancer can give you the shivers. Many of us feel protective of children and want to shield them from bad news, but they will sense that something has changed, and they may worry. Many kids I know have highly accurate built-in lie detectors. Their emotional radar is always on, picking up signals from everyone around them. Should you tell your kids you have breast cancer?
Answer:

Hide or Seek - Talking About Cancer Secrets

The emotional impact of cancer and the side effects of treatment can be very hard to hide. Even if your kids are grown and living on their own, they may sense that a crisis is brewing and they will worry. Children of any age might start to imagine terrible situations that would bring their worlds crashing down, if they are uninformed. In the age of social media networking, news gets around faster than you can say gigabyte, and the ways that news can get distorted are unlimited. Imagine your child accidentally hearing your friends discuss your diagnosis, or seeing it mentioned on a FaceBook page. If you tell them about your breast cancer diagnosis, you can ensure that they won't hear it from someone else first. Build trust and keep things accurate by delivering your news yourself.

Match The Message To The Child

Consider the age of each child before you talk to it about your breast cancer diagnosis. Younger children don't need medical terms or gritty details - they need reassurance that you will be open with them about your illness. Older kids will have their own questions about cancer and you can match your response to their understanding. Keep the conversation honest and uncomplicated - and don't overload it with your emotions and fears. Be sure that your kids know that nothing they did caused your breast cancer. Hold the door open for future conversations and questions, and let them react with any emotions that may surface. Listen to them and offer comfort.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Here are two examples of mothers who handled this problem. Both are professional women with public and private lives, and all the responsibilities that come with those roles. Notice how differently they timed telling their children that they had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mommy Is Fine

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told her three young children that she was having surgery, but didn't give them the reason. Despite having a double mastectomy and an ovariectomy, she worked and kept a regular schedule at home and on the job. She did not take radiation or chemotherapy, but did test positive for the BRCA2 mutation. A year after her diagnosis, Wasserman Schultz told her children and then told the public as she introduced new legislation to promote breast cancer education. When asked why she didn't tell her kids sooner, she said that she didn't want them to worry about her.

Looking For Mama's Hair

Professor Teresa Van Hoy was teaching history and raising two small boys when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Once she had decided on a treatment plan, she explained to her sons that she was sick and was going to take medicine to get better. She assured them that she would be fine after treatments, but that her hair might go away for a while. Her youngest boy whispered, "Mommy, I am afraid that I will be lost more now." "Why, mi hijito?" "Because whenever I need to find you I just look for your long curls." It was a powerful moment for both of them from which they could move forward. She told him that her hair and her health would return, making sure he knew what to expect.

Telling My Kids I Have Breast Cancer

A healthy parent-child relationship is based on love and trust - telling your kids that you have cancer is one way to trust them with important information about you. There are no engraved rules about how and when to tell them, but be sure to match your message to the child's age and understanding. Explain what they should expect as you progress through treatment, and let them ask questions. This could be the first of many conversations that will draw you closer together and strengthen your relationship.

Sources:

Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis. American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 06/17/2010.

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