Talking to children about cancer
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.
Shelley encouraged her teenage children to be as open about her situation as they wanted to be with other people. This proved to be the right decision for this family.
The kids all got home from school that afternoon. We sat them down. They were teenagers, first year university and two in high school and I let them know that I was diagnosed with cancer that a biopsy was going to happen and that’s all I knew. Lots of tears, […]
Tina told some of her grandchildren but opted not to tell the youngest two. However, this led to a difficult situation.
When I was telling my family, there was only two children that we didn’t tell. They were the two youngest girls. I chose not to tell one in particular because she gets upset over everything, the littlest thing, she panics over. So we chose not to tell her in particular. […]
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.
Deann explains how she handled talking to her teenage children and why she felt it was important for them to hear about her cancer from her.
It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I called my husband and told him you better, you had best come home and I was very upset, he was very upset and he didn’t want me to tell my children. He wanted… and I was like… so that was more upsetting because it […]
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.
Debbra described the approach she took to discuss her situation with her five-year old son.
Children have got to be the hardest thing to put into this equation. I think if he wasn’t around it would be so much easier because you’re brain goes to what’s going to happen? Am I going to see him go to Grade 12, and am I going to be […]
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.
Samantha also received helpful advice from her family doctor about how best to talk to her daughter about cancer.
I think that’s what made me the most anxious about the whole thing, what do I say to a 7-year old? The advice that I got from my GP (General Practitioner) was to tell her as much as she asks. Don’t tell her more than she needs to know. His […]
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.
Julie found that her daughter's presence throughout her cancer journey helped her maintain a normal routine and avoid falling into a depression.
My daughter was 2 ½ years old when I had my first surgery and I was very honest with her. I used the words that you must use with a two and a half years old, and in her two and a half years old mind she understood what she […]
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.
Carol has four children (between 6 and 11 years old). But it was her oldest daughter who was most aware of the possibility of dying.
They had a lot of pamphlets, a lot of books; one of them was how to help my children through this which was a big thing for me. I didn’t want them to be too scarred by all of this. But in the end, I didn’t even… There was a […]
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.
Debbra emphasized the importance of being honest with children while, at the same time, finding a way to talk about the issues without frightening them.
The day before I went in for surgery, I sat down and said that I had some bad cells. I used bad cells instead of cancer for a couple of different reasons. I think it’s really important for kids to… at various different ages to hear the different kinds of […]
Review date: 2019-09