Telling Your Children

Experts recommend that the sooner you tell your children that you have breast cancer, the better. Most women don't want to tell their children, because they are afraid that it will be too much of a burden for them and they do not want to distract them from their regular routines of schoolwork or other important activities. Telling your children is important but it is your choice. You should discuss how and when to tell your children with your partner. You may also want to include another family member that your child is close to, for support. Your children may be more comfortable asking questions of a close relative who might alleviate any fears or worries they may have about your cancer.

Why You Might Want to Tell Your Children

Children, when approached in a matter-of-fact and informative way, will be very receptive and look to you for your perceptions of the situation and will use it as their guide. They will take your lead with the information presented to them. Telling them avoids secretiveness about the breast cancer, which would instill a sense of the unknown and fear of what is really happening. Children are very perceptive and know that you are not feeling well, so not talking about your breast cancer may bring on more anxiety and fear. Telling them shows your children that you have confidence in their ability to cope and lessens their feelings of being useless during your breast cancer treatment. Having your breast cancer out in the open will give your children an opportunity to express their feelings of sadness and also a chance to support you and it will make you proud of them. Also, by not telling your children, you risk the possibility that they will find out through others, who may not have the sensitivity or the knowledge of what to say and how to provide the support to your child in the way that you know they need.

In Her Own Words

I told my son that God only gives us what we can handle and that through this journey we would build character. Days later, my son asked, “Do I have enough character yet?”

— Chelsey, age 41, 2-year survivor

When You Should Tell Them

You should tell your children as soon as you are able, but also when the time is right for you. You will want to do it in a calm and quiet environment and not during a hectic time in your family's schedule. You want to be available to them afterward in case they have questions or just want you to be there for them.

What to Tell Them

You should use the word cancer and not skirt around the issue or give it another name. Call it what it is so that they will understand. Talk to them in simple language that is age-appropriate. Help your children know what to expect during your breast cancer treatments so they will not be surprised about your lack of energy or your hair loss if you are having chemotherapy. You don't have to tell them everything at once. You can give the information in small doses so that they will not be overwhelmed. If your children cry, let them. Comfort them and let them know that you care and allow them to express their feelings so that they will be able to move on along with you.

In His Own Words

I remember an almost physical, gut fear for my mom and her health, something akin to a general dread or raw emotion. On the more cerebral side, I remember thinking about what my brother and dad and I would do if she didn't recover. I remember being particularly worried about my dad; how would he cope? What would he do if Mom died? At other times I recall feeling fairly matter of fact. In answer to the question, “What will we do?” I told myself we'd cope. When my self responded, “How?” I told it, “We'll find out when we have to.”

— Casey, son of Ellen, 12-year survivor

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