If you have children, how much you tell them will depend on how old they are. Give them age-appropriate information and make sure you are always honest with them. Do not try to hide things from them.
Do keep an eye on your children/teenagers. This is a difficult time for them as well and they can react in different ways. They may feel angry, lonely, scared or left out. Seek help for them from a counsellor if you think they need it.
On this page we look at:
- why you should tell your children what's happening
- what you should tell your children
- how you should tell your children
- more resources on talking to children about cancer
Why should you tell your children about your cancer
- Breast cancer is a disease that will affect the whole family. It will mean practical changes and emotional changes for you, your partner and your children. Your children need to know what is going on so that they can understand these changes and deal with the subsequent emotions.
- If you do not tell your children what is going on, they could imagine the situation is worse than it is.
- Children are likely to overhear conversations etc about your breast cancer. It is better that they know what is happening and feel able to ask you questions if they do not understand something, than for them to misinterpret information they may overhear.
- Children have access to the internet and books. Discussing breast cancer with them and helping them to access information will ensure they get reliable and accurate information rather than details that may not be accurate or which may be frightening or scary.
What should you tell your children
- It is best to speak to your children soon after your diagnosis so they know what is going on from the outset. Explain to them you have a disease called cancer and give them a few age-appropriate details.
- Explain what will happen next for you - that you will have surgery/radiation/chemotherapy - whatever your treatment programme involves. Again, you don't need to burden them with too many details, but give them the outline of what will happen and allow them to ask questions.
- Let them know that treatment may mean you are in hospital for a period of time, that you may feel sick sometimes, that you'll feel tired more often, that you may feel grumpy and have less patience sometimes. Make sure they know these side-effects are nothing to do with them.
- Explain what will happen for them while you are having treatment. They may be worried about who will look after them and who will look after you.
- Make sure they feel hopeful about the future. Let them know that most women survive breast cancer and that although it is an upsetting time now, there will be better times in future.
- Answer their questions openly and honestly. Let them know they can come to you at any time with questions or queries.
- Don't be afraid to cry in front of your children. There is no point in pretending this is not affecting you. Doing so may also give your child permission to cry or to express their emotions as well.
How should you tell your children
- You can speak to your children about breast cancer alone or with your partner. You may feel stronger if your partner is there or you may feel it's something you should do on your own. It's your personal choice.
- You may want to speak to your children as a group or individually. If your children's ages vary, you may like to speak to them individually because the kind of information they want and need will depend on their ages.
- Set aside plenty of time so that your children know this is important and that they can ask questions.
- Talk about the facts of the disease and about feelings and how the disease may make you and them feel. Don't deny the emotions - let your children know it's okay to express a range of emotions - anger, sadness, resentment etc.
- Don't worry your children with other problems that may be associated with your treatment, e.g. money worries.
- Don't push your children to talk if they don't want to, but give them plenty of opportunities to talk about things with you if they do want to.
- Don't lie.
Find out More
Read the talking to children section of the UK website MacMillan Cancer Support
The Cancer Society has a useful booklet Cancer in the Family: Talking to your children
CanTeen Aotearoa supports young New Zealanders who are impacted by cancer. They work with young people aged 13-24 who are dealing with their own diagnosis, a parent or sibling's cancer or the death of a parent or sibling. Visit their website https://www.canteen.org.nz/
The New Zealand organisation Skylight offers support to those sealing with change, grief or trauma. They have a range of resources on talking to children about difficult illness, death and grief.
The American National Cancer Institute produces When your parent has cancer - a guide for teens which is a useful and interactive resource for teenagers.
You might like to contact Kenzie's Gift, which focuses on the emotional wellbeing of families, women and children affected by cancer and works in the Auckland region. It was established to reduce the emotional and psychological trauma families face through painful and frightening cancer treatments and the uncertainties of living with cancer.