Telling family members about a diagnosis of breast cancer is often difficult. Women told us that deciding how to break the news with children was a particular challenge. Women with adolescent or young adult children were often concerned about disrupting their lives. This led some women to delay sharing the news, for example, if their children were away from home or were writing exams. Kathryn explained that she moved her daughter out of the house because she knew she wouldn't be able to concentrate watching her go through the treatment.
Women were also concerned that their children learn about their cancer from them rather than pick up on it from overheard conversations or from friends and neighbours who might know about it or suspect. They also wanted their children to be able to ask questions and to get answers.
Women with younger children had to find ways of talking about their illness so that their children could understand and wouldn't be frightened or upset. They wondered whether or not to use the word cancer in their explanations since it has such strong associations with dying. Melissa told her only son about a tumour, and still today feels she did not word it well. When her son heard the word cancer he realized what it was about and that was a challenging moment.
Some women found that allowing their children to be involved in their care helped the child make sense of the situation. For instance, allowing children to come with them to medical appointments if they wanted to, not hiding medications, and allowing their children to see their bandages and their bodies after surgery could make things seem less mysterious and frightening. Samantha's daughter was seven years old at the time she was undergoing treatment. Being honest with her and allowing her to be involved in her care made the situation less scary. In the clip below Samantha speaks about helpful advice.
Effect of the Age of Children
Some women had very young children at the time of their diagnosis and treatment. For example, Julie's daughter was only 2½ years old at the time. Nonetheless, she found ways of speaking about her situation so that her daughter could accept it and understand it. She also allowed her daughter to be involved in her care. You can hear more about this in Julie's clip.
In some cases, talking to children about cancer included talking about the possibility of dying. Unsurprisingly, this was a very difficult subject for women to tackle and the age of the child was a big factor in deciding how to approach the conversation. Other factors were the woman's diagnosis and prognosis (what type and stage of cancer the woman had and what the doctors thought was likely to happen). When Samantha's 7 year old daughter asked whether she could die, she answered honestly but re-focused the conversation by talking about the benefits of treatment. She was also able to draw on the experience of other people they knew who had cancer and did not die.
In cases where women were living with cancer that had come back or had spread to other parts of their body, the conversation could be more difficult. Debbra's son was 5 when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and 11 when her cancer recurred. She reflected on the differences between the conversations she had with her son the first time they were faced with cancer, and those she had the second time around. She speaks about this in the clip below.