How do you tell your kids you have breast cancer?

One of our longtime regulars sent me a note with some sad news: She has just been told she has breast cancer. She is still waiting to learn what stage it is in so she doesn’t have all the information yet. She wants your thoughts and experiences about how to tell her children (she has a teen and preteen) that she has cancer.

She also wants advice about how to deal with the cancer within the family.

I personally think she needs to wait to tell the kids until she has all the details. I think she needs to know what stage it is in and what the treatment will be so she can comfort the kids by having a plan. (I think this is true for moving, divorce, any big changes. I think they need to know there is a plan.)

I tend to want to tell my kids everything and be very scientific about it. For example, when my brother needed his heart transplant, I told my kids all the details about what was happening to his body and what would happen when he got the new heart. I think my sister-in-law gave their kids far less detail. Maybe that’s because it was their father and not their uncle?

Do you think she should give the kids all logical, scientific information that you have or just hit it sort of simply: Mom has cancer and I’m going to do X,Y and Z treatment.

Should she tell her older child something different that the younger child? Should she tell them together or separate?

I tried to encourage her that I don’t think breast cancer is a death sentence. Breast cancer is beatable, and she has to stay positive.

Please share your thoughts, advice and experiences with our blog friend.

24 comments Add your comment

Macy

January 17th, 2014
7:09 am

You tell them enough that they can handle for their age. You don’t need to go into specifics with a 3-5 year old, they don’t understand the ugliness of life yet.

I would wait until all tests are back, and my husband and I know for sure what the prognosis is before we tell the kids.

My heart goes out to whoever this long time reader is. Bless you and your family. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. There have been so many advancements in medicine and hopefully you found out in time, and can be treated, and will have a long healthy life.

buckheadgirl

January 17th, 2014
7:48 am

I would tell them the very basics as soon as possible. Certainly at least the older child has noticed some change in routine or demeanor of their mother. You can plan all you want but cancer has it’s own agenda. Knowing the stage and expected treatment requirements are not necessarily helpful. Things change; and rapidly.

motherjanegoose

January 17th, 2014
8:02 am

I am so sad for this Mother. I am really at a loss of words. The two things I can say are:

1. I will keep you in my prayers
2. My neighbor had breast cancer 11 years ago and had a double mastectomy. She is fine now.
You can beat it!

I hope there will be others who can share their thoughts here for someone who needs support.

Techmom

January 17th, 2014
8:33 am

I think you tell them now. Life doesn’t always have plans that come together nicely. You tell them that you just found out (this is something that is so life-impacting that I’d be surprised if they hadn’t noticed something is wrong). They’ll soon start catching snippets of conversations or sympathetic glances and not understand and then feel betrayed that you didn’t tell them first. Tell them you are awaiting for tests to find out the course of action. Tell them you expect a lot of doctors visits. Tell them that you are scared but you are determined to beat it. Just be real.

Your girls are old enough that they’ll probably worry you won’t make it or you won’t be able to work. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what kids will focus on but since [I think] you’re a single mom, they might worry about that. Focus on the positive and remind them that none of us are guaranteed how long we’ll be around. Tell them what your plan is to take care of them of you get really sick from the treatment or it gets worse but let them know it’s just a backup plan. Let your daughters know that this is not going to be easy but TOGETHER, you guys will get through this. I’m quite sure they will be your biggest supporters and help as you go through this.

Prayers be with you.

Mother of 2

January 17th, 2014
8:40 am

I would recommend a very matter of fact discussion. She can wait until she has more information if she prefers, but these kids may have sensed that something’s amiss already. We went through something similar as a family. I explained to my kids that I didn’t have all of the answers, but I explained the surgery and treatment in a factual way. We focused on the positives – less invasive surgery and treatments, we are lucky to have such good treatments in this day and age. I never lied to my kids and I truly believed everything that I told them. I also kept them updated on the day of surgery and throughout the treatment phase. I didn’t have all the information when I told them, because the surgery needed to be done before staging could take place. We went through some uncharted water together, and I was proud of my kids in their ability to understand that this was something out of our control. We were frightened, but we faced it together.

Kids usually take their cues from their parents. If the parents feel confident in their doctors and treatment plan, the kids will most likely feel the same. However, my kids were very afraid when I first told them. I encouraged them to ask any questions they had and I would help them find answers. We came together as a family and are closer now than we were before.

Cancer treatments have come a very long way, but it’s frightening to hear that a loved one has cancer. I felt a strong need to protect my children, but I’m glad that I was open and honest with them. They felt very respected to be given information, and they felt empowered to be a part of the discussion and to be a helpful part of our family.

Best wishes to your friend and her family. Prayers for a good outcome.

FCM

January 17th, 2014
9:05 am

My two have a step Mom who faced (and so far won) her war with Breast Cancer. She had a double mastectomy. That was 2011. We did wait until we knew for sure the stage and what action was going to happen before the information was shared (and I was the lucky one to tell them!) Of course they do not live with the step Mom.

When I have gone to the doctor and needed to do something important, like my blood pressure being high,they know about it. At least they know as much as they can handle without being scared to pieces. They have not always learned the outcomes when I know them though. Yes, I am guilty of “hedging” it sometimes :)

Prayers to any struggling with the “big” issues.

Real Life

January 17th, 2014
9:05 am

I suggest telling them what they need to know in an age appropriate manner. A teenager especially should not be shielded from a parent’s serious illness. My father died of cancer when I was in high school. My siblings and I were kept in the dark as much as possible. We were told he was ill, but would get well especially if we prayed hard.
His death was a shock. My mother still says that she should have prepared us more and I agree with her. Three of us were more than old enough to understand a serious illness as well as the treatments. Tell the kids about mom’s illness but stress what is being done in terms of treatment. Answer questions honestly, be upfront about what is going on in a manner that is appropriate for the age. In this day and age a teen and pre-teen will look this up on the internet. So including them in discussions starting now is the best way to go.

LizBeth

January 17th, 2014
9:17 am

First, I ask my kids how much they want to know. But my rule is (and they know it), that I’d rather they hear the truth from me than overhear phone calls and conversations, and then imagine differently.

LizBeth

January 17th, 2014
9:22 am

When we have gone through these issues, we have done the same as “Mother of Two” above. Tell the truth and be positive. If you can’t be positive, be comforting. Celebrate all of the goodness and teach how to cope with all of the worst.

HB

January 17th, 2014
9:27 am

My heart goes out to this family. I don’t think there’s a right amount of info to provide — it depends on the kids. Some may feel more in control with more info; others may be overwhelmed by it. If they will know a lot more shortly (maybe within a week?), I think it’s probably ok to wait and have a plan they can share, but if the process is more drawn out, they should probably go ahead and tell them. The kids will resent being lied to, and that’s what it will feel like if there is too much time/too many unexplained appointments before they’re told.

Erin

January 17th, 2014
10:35 am

First, my heart goes out to the mom facing cancer. I know it’s got to be horrible for her, but I hope she knows there are many out there wishing her nothing but the best.

As for telling the kids? They need to know, definitely. No question about that. How MUCH they need to know depends on the kid. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was only 14 and my parents were very upfront with me about it, which I appreciated. I wanted to know what was going on and I did, but depending on the sensitivity of the kids here, maybe they wouldn’t want to know as much. It really just depends.

But the main thing is, they DO need to know and they need to be able to ask questions and hear honest answers … again, with detail given in an age-appropriate manner and depending on how much they want to know.

BlondeHoney

January 17th, 2014
12:11 pm

I was diagnosed at the end of November with kidney cancer; my oldest was here for Thanksgiving and was with me at the Dr. peahen I got the news. He was positive, upbeat, and constantly assured me all would be well. My youngest is currently deployed so I waited until I had all the information then e-mailed him; he is aboard a sub so I had no idea when he would get the news. Long story short, I had surgery mid-December and the great news is they got it all (including my kidney but hey, I have 2); I now have follow ups at 3 and 6 months to make sure cancer doesn’t return. My youngest got my email the day before surgery and called from the satellite phone aboard ship to make sure I was ok. Agree they need to know in a way that is age/maturity appropriate. God bless and good luck to her

USC-69

January 17th, 2014
12:23 pm

In my family we have found that all secrets are painful for the secret-keeper and obvious to those observing. Unless one member is unstable psychologically, I think it is best to provide all information as it becomes available. This reassures the family that they are not in the dark, allows them to feel and be supportive, and allows them to participate in all planning and care. Cancer is part of everyday life now and will become less frightening to the uninformed if accurate knowledge is discussed openly. Cancer should no longer be an embarrassment or an identity. It has become part of life for everyone. Live it.

LizBeth

January 17th, 2014
12:38 pm

@USC-69

Amen! Break the cycles of secrets and family fear! Build confidence in your kids by being honest and truthful. Create a family team of support. And put your kids on that team.

Becky

January 17th, 2014
1:32 pm

First off, prayers for this Mom..As others have mentioned, tell the children as much as they need to know, depending on their age..My two are 11 and I tell them enough about things that if they want, they can ask questions..

My only experience (close friend or family) and breast cancer was about 10 years ago..A very close coworker and friend was diagnosed at the end of Feb. she passed the first part of July.. She was 31 and left behind two daughters under eight..

Kat

January 17th, 2014
2:50 pm

I think she needs to have more details. Depending on the age of her children, “stages of cancer” mean nothing. They want to feel secure and safe; in lieu of that, they need facts. When a parent of mine was diagnosed with cancer when I was in middle school, I was told “too soon” by my other parent. Too soon meaning it had not been fully comprehended at that point and the parent shed A LOT of tears, which scares kids. It may be natural, but it is confusing and worrisome. Straight-forward and factual with the ability to change as the prognosis does – positively naturally!

Kat

January 17th, 2014
2:54 pm

The book by Bernie Siegel (Love, Medicine and Miracles) will be helpful as well. It’s very thought-provoking and uplifting. I don’t believe in prayer, but if the person/family do, it will be even more inspiring. Sending happy thoughts to this regular poster!

anoh

January 18th, 2014
10:35 am

I am so sorry to hear about your struggle!! Try going without your bra as much as possible, all the time. It is scary to have your breasts be bouncing out of control, but if there is any truth to any of the studies that connect bra wearing and breast inflammation leading to cancer, it is worth a shot as the theory is bouncing flushes them of toxins. Also while your breasts might seem to have turned against you, focus on loving them, focus on appreciating them, touch them, ask them to heal and give them space to do it. If you have the stomach for it, look at ‘Dressed to Kill’. There is a lot of confusion about bras and breast cancer with every institution saying there is no link, but every woman who has ever felt relief when taking off her bra has intuition signaling her that there may be a link. Remember when no one thought cigarettes were bad for you fifty years ago? Many people that is the state of bra cancer now. May you find peace and strength.

Kat

January 18th, 2014
10:41 pm

@anoh: That is the dumbest suggestion and “link” I have ever heard of on this blog. This is saying quite a bit. “Bouncing flushes them of toxins.”

I still hope this woman has a successful surgery and outcome, but these types of suggestions are pointless and idiotic.

Kat

January 18th, 2014
10:43 pm

From breastcancer.org: Underwire bras do not cause breast cancer. Only one scientific study has looked at the link between wearing a bra and breast cancer. There was no real difference in risk between women who wore a bra and women who didn’t wear a bra. Being overweight does increase breast cancer risk though, and women who are overweight are more likely to have larger breasts and wear a bra. Women who don’t wear bras are more likely to be at a healthy weight. This difference in weight is probably why this myth continues to circulate.

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Denise

January 20th, 2014
8:46 pm

Prayers for the reader with breast cancer. Prayers for BlondeHoney’s full healing as well.

That’s all I got. I have no idea how to tell children this kind of news. When my father had cancer he drove from Louisiana to Georgia to tell me face to face rather than on the phone and I was 24. I cannot imagine how a child would take it about her mother.

DB

January 21st, 2014
3:03 pm

Our “regular” has all the hopes, prayers and good wishes of everyone on this blog. To the regular: YOU CAN BEAT THIS! I know it’s scary, terrifying and having the onus of not only taking care of yourself but also your children is just another layer of worry. I have a dear friend with three kids who just beat tremendous odds and is now cancer-free after being diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer this time last year. Stay positive — do whatever it takes to keep yourself focused on kicking cancer’s butt. The most positive you are, the more the kids will feel reassured. And don’t be afraid of getting a second opinion — or even a third.

“Cancer” is such a scary word, especially to kids, who all know someone who has lost a loved one to some form of cancer. Cancer.org has some great books that deals with kids’ feelings and fears, too — check ‘em out.

Do NOT be afraid to ask for help — with kids, with meals, with transportation, ANYTHING. Have a list of things that need doing — when someone asks, “Let me know how I can help,” TELL THEM. This is not a time for pride or shyness. Your friends want to help, even if it’s just bringing over cookies and a new DVD.

I vote on telling the kids now. They probably know something is up, anyway — and I’m a lousy secret keeper. :-) The statistics are on your side. I wish I could hug you, but know that we’re pulling for you, each in our own way.