Talking with children about breast cancer

Telling your children

Deciding when and how much to tell the children is a real concern for many families. Even if children don’t fully understand, we know they are less anxious and less frightened when they know what’s going on.

Some parents avoid telling their children for fear of upsetting them or having to answer difficult questions. But children are able to pick up on changes and know when something is upsetting or worrying you.

If a child feels left out, they may start to think they have done something wrong or they create a story that could be far worse than the truth. Many children feel they can’t tell you their worries, and instead they retreat into themselves. Fear and uncertainty can manifest in their behaviour, their school work or their friendships.

Children need to feel they can trust their parents, and being honest helps them do that. Keeping it all inside may also be tiring for you, just at a time when you need all your energy to help you get better.

Who might tell them

Where possible, it is best that you and your partner talk with your children as they will handle difficult news best when it comes from someone they know and love. Where it’s not possible, have someone else you and your children know well to be with you.

Including his dad and his grandmother did make things easier. They spoke to him at length when I was not around. I’m not sure exactly what they said but I knew he would have them to turn to if he ever needed anything.

Sian, mother of Elliott, aged 12 at her diagnosis

When to tell them

Most women talk to their partner, close friends and relatives intially but may choose to wait until later to tell their children: sometimes after a confirmed diagnoses, sometimes after surgery. There are no clear set of rules and a lot will depend on the age of the children.

But the longer you leave telling them something, the more likely children are to realise that all is not well and to start worrying and guessing.

Finding the right words

What you decide to tell your children will depend on a number of different things. You may be a family that talks very openly about everything, or you may come from a background or culture where intimate or serious things are not talked about, or are kept between adults. You may talk much more easily to one of your children than to another. And your children’s ages and characters will make a difference to what they understand and how they react.

Practising what you’re going to say, what kind of words you’re going to use and talking with your breast care nurse beforehand will help you prepare. The best approach is to keep things simple and see what questions your children ask. It’s important not to make things up, as the children will remember what you say even though you may not.

One of the most difficult things for many adults is using the word cancer because many people are fearful of cancer and what having cancer can mean. This is not necessarily true for children, who may simply accept that it's the name for what is wrong with you and may have overheard this word used in the family or at school anyway.

If you can, it is best to use the word cancer from the beginning, and to explain it in language that your children understand. It may be less frightening if cancer is described as cells that have grown faster than other cells in the body.

If you have more than one child, even if they are different ages, begin by telling them together so that they start with the same information. They will understand and take different things away and if they want to, they can come back to ask more. You can also make time to talk to them individually at a later date.

How children may react

Children react differently depending on their age, temperament, stage of development and the relationship they have with you. So it’s hard to predict what will happen when you tell your children about your breast cancer.

You may face some difficult questions. Children will ask you about the future, whether you will be cured or whether you are going to die. It's important to be as honest and open as you can but it's fine to say that you don’t know. Most of all, your children need to know that everyone’s doing all they can to make you better, that you still love and care for them and that there are things they can do to help.

Like adults, some children find it easier to express their emotions than others. Try to give them time and opportunities to talk about how they feel, but it’s best not to push them if they would rather not talk, especially at first. Your children may prefer to talk things over with their friends rather than with you, especially if they are older. If this is the case, you may want to talk to friends’ parents first, so that everyone is saying the same thing and your children aren’t frightened by half-truths or wrong information.

You may notice some changes in your children. Children may respond to the news in some of the same ways as adults. They may not feel like eating, their sleep may be disturbed and they may have trouble concentrating at school or with homework. They may get angry or upset over what seem like relatively small problems and setbacks. Younger children particularly may revert to behaviour that they haven’t shown for a long time, such as baby talk or bed-wetting. The important thing is to be sensitive to changes in their behaviour or mood.

At times children may appear to be thoughtless and unkind, but that’s because they have other things aside from the cancer on their minds, such as school or friends, which is how it should be. But they can also be very supportive and will sometimes surprise you by doing or saying something that shows they understand.

Last reviewed: October 2014
Next planned review begins 2017

Let us know what you think

Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.