You’ve just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Even before it all sinks in, you’re worrying about how to break the news to your family – especially the kids.
If you’re like most mothers, your first inclination is to protect your children. How can you tell them about your diagnosis without upsetting them? You can’t.
On the other hand trying to shield your kids can backfire. Even if you avoid mentioning that you have cancer, they will sense that something is wrong, just from your behavior. Or they might overhear snippets of your discussions on the phone. Not knowing exactly what is wrong will magnify their anxiety.
Research shows that children who know the facts have less anxiety than those who don’t. Therefore, it is important to tell your kids about your diagnosis, but wait until you have a specific plan about what treatment you’ll be getting and how it’s likely to affect family life.
The first time you talk about this with your children, do so at home, in person. Have their father present if possible. It’s best to have the conversation earlier in the day rather than at bedtime. Explain your condition in a matter-of-fact way that is appropriate for their age.
- Older children can handle more detail than younger children. Don’t avoid saying “breast cancer.” It’s an ugly phrase, but the more you say it out loud, the less threatening it will feel to you and to others
- Very young children will be most concerned about what your diagnosis means for them. Will you have to go away to the hospital? Who is going to take care of them? How is their life going to change?
- Older children will be concerned about these things as well, but they will also worry that you’ll die. While you can’t promise that you won’t, you can reassure them that the chance of survival is far greater than in the past.
Talking with your kids is not a once-and-done conversation. Just as it took a while for you to process the diagnosis (and you may still be doing so) it will take some time for them to grasp what’s happening. They may ask questions at random times, such as while riding with you in the car, when watching TV, or in the middle of their homework. When such questions come up, they usually reflect worry, even if their tone of voice sounds casual.
To help ease your children’s anxiety, answer questions immediately, if possible, and factually. Even if you’ve stated the same facts several times before, your kids may still need to hear them again.
More information on talking about your cancer diagnosis: The American Cancer Society