A mother may find it very difficult to talk to a young child about her illness. It’s natural to want to protect your children from the news, however children know when something is wrong, and will usually imagine the worst if not told the truth. No matter how difficult it is, be assured that sharing the diagnosis with your children can reduce their feelings of fear, confusion and helplessness.

Here are some tips to help you in telling your children about your diagnosis:

  • Speak honestly, frankly and hopefully about your breast cancer and treatment. It’s best to use age-appropriate language
  • Use accurate terms, such as cancer and tumour, with children who are old enough to understand what those words mean in order to avoid confusion
  • Young children may blame themselves for a parent’s illness, relating it to their own bad behaviour. Emphasize to your child that cancer is no one’s fault
  • Encourage an ongoing dialogue. Each child will process the information differently, and upon learning your news, may have questions immediately or much later. By discussing questions as they arise, you can better understand your child’s concerns and how best to address them
  • Let your child know that it’s okay to be upset, angry or scared
  • Remind them often that they will always be cared for and loved

Older children and adolescents also need to be treated with sensitivity and openness. They may find it hard to acknowledge or accept your illness. They should be made aware that there are other adults they can talk to if they find it too difficult to speak with you directly. Perhaps an aunt, uncle or a close family friend can provide support.

It may also be helpful to inform your child’s teachers and/or school principal that you have cancer, so that they can be aware of any changes in behaviour that your child is exhibiting.

Links to more information

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Young Families & Breast Cancer
Rethink Breast Cancer

Family Connections – A Resource for Parents with Cancer and Their Families
Dana Farber Cancer Institute

Talking to Children about Breast Cancer
Living Beyond Breast Cancer

How We Told Our Children
Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia

Talking to Young Children

Talking with Your Children about Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer Care

How a Child Understands Cancer
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Talking to Older Children and Teens

Talking about the Diagnosis
Cancer Council NSW

What About My Kids?: A Guide for Parents Living with Breast Cancer
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation / Ottawa Hospital Regional Cancer Centre

Reaching Out to Your Children When Cancer Comes to Your Family: A Guide for Parents
BC Cancer Agency

How Children Cope (YouTube video)
Johns Hopkins Medicine

How to Speak to Children (YouTube video)
Johns Hopkins Medicine

My Mom Has Breast Cancer: A Guide for Families (video)