Twelve percent of women will get breast cancer at some point in their life. Getting a cancer diagnosis is devastating and will have a huge impact on a woman’s life. What’s foremost on the mind of a mother with breast cancer — helping her children cope along the journey. This, of course, begins with communication.
Depending on the age of the child, these conversations take different paths. What’s said to a five-year-old will be very different than the conversation with a 15-year-old. There are some talking points/approaches that are the same across the board.
Children know when something’s not right. Attempting to keep an issue from them can result in a lot of fear.
Marie Miao, an oncology-certified, licensed clinical social worker for Hoag Hospital gives several recommendations for navigating this challenging conversation.
Choose a Safe Space
Miao advises sharing the news in a safe space. This will most likely be at home. Because a child’s reaction is unpredictable having this talk in a public place can add to a child’s stress.
A good starting point — asking the child what they know about cancer. Very young children may be unfamiliar with the word. While it’s important to use the word cancer, women will want to talk about the fact that mommy is sick, but is a doctor will be taking care of her.
Children often have a self-centered view of the world. While they will be concerned about their mother, they are also going to be concerned about how this will affect them. They may want to know that they are not going to get sick. That it is not contagious.
Acknowledging a Child’s Feelings
Children’s feelings should be validated. They should be reassured that whatever emotions they feel are ok. Important, too, is making space and time for them to ask questions on an ongoing basis. Parents should answer questions to the best of their ability.
Details About What Happens Next
Children should be prepared for everything that will happen. Some steps to consider discussing:
- If there will be surgery and who will take care of them while mom is in the hospital?
- If they’re used to being picked up by mom, they’ll need to understand that won’t happen for a period of time.
- If chemotherapy is part of the treatment regimen, children should be prepared for the side effects, such as nausea, fatigue and hair loss. Reassure them mom’s hair will grow back.
Teenaged girls may be aware enough about breast cancer to know family history is a risk factor. They may worry that this is a disease that they could get later in their lifetime. If they choose to get genetic testing — the breast cancer susceptibility gene tests are BRCA1 AND BRCA2 — this can alert odds of developing breast cancer, which can be a four-in-five chance. This can lead to life decisions, such as preemptively freezing eggs and preparing for possibilities.
A cancer diagnosis and treatment is always a difficult path. Honesty, support and taking an age-appropriate approach will help everyone involved.
How to Tell Your Children You Have Breast Cancer — Sources
Marie Miao, oncology-certified, licensed clinical social worker for Hoag Hospital’s Family Cancer Institute and the High-Risk Breast and Ovarian Cancer Clinic and program director for CLIMB
Dana-Farber Cancer Insititute