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Helping Children Cope with Your Breast Cancer

by Cynthia Moore, PhD

Breast Cancer image

Open, honest communication with children about breast cancer can be challenging, but it’s one of the best ways to help children thrive during your treatment.

What should I tell my children about my diagnosis?
It helps for children to know the name of the illness (“breast cancer”) and that it is not contagious. (“You can’t catch cancer, like you can’t catch a broken leg.”) You might ask if your child has thoughts about how the cancer started, because sometimes children have incorrect ideas. For example, a four-year-old child might imagine that hitting mom during a tickle fight caused the lump in her breast. Even older children can mistakenly think that they did something to cause a parent’s cancer. A sixth grader might think that his mother’s stress about his poor grades in school caused her cancer. Children need to know that nothing they did, or didn’t do, caused your cancer.

Do I have to use the word “cancer”?
You might wonder if saying that you have a “boo-boo” on your breast or that you are “sick” will be less scary for your child than using the words “breast cancer.” Usually, it’s better to be specific. Children get scrapes all the time and might have a hard time understanding why their boo-boo can be fixed with a bandage but yours needs surgery. Also, children often overhear things, even when you try hard not to talk in front of them. This can be confusing to a young child, and an older child might feel hurt or angry that you did not tell him or her about the diagnosis yourself. Honest conversations help your children learn how to talk about difficult things and share their worries with you.

Let your child know that it is normal to have many different feelings about cancer.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Cynthia Moore

What else should my children know?
Let your children know what kind of treatment you are getting and how it might affect their daily lives. For example, you might tell your fifth grader that “I’ll be going to the doctor’s office every two weeks for medicine to fight the cancer; it’s called chemotherapy. On those days, I won’t be able to pick you up from school, so Jason’s mom will bring you to his house until I get home.” If you expect side effects from treatment, prepare your children for these, too: “I will probably be really tired for a few days after my chemotherapy, so I might not be able to play with you or help you with homework on those days. We’ll see how it goes and ask our friends for help if we need it.”

What if my child doesn’t want to talk?
Some children ask a lot of questions, while others would sooner give up candy forever than hear one more word about cancer or admit to having any feelings about your diagnosis. If your child prefers not to talk much but maintains normal school performance, enjoys regular activities and friends, and behaves as usual at home, then he or she is probably coping well. Some children do best when they try not to think much about cancer and focus instead on “normal life.”

Rather than asking your “clam” how he or she feels about you being sick, try asking whether he or she is hearing too much, not enough, or just the right amount of detail about your illness and treatment. Ask about whether there are any good things about living with your cancer, such as having brownies delivered several times a week by neighbors or being spoiled a bit by grandparents. Then ask what the worst parts are – you looking different from other parents, not being able to have friends over very often, or disgusting casseroles too many nights in a row? You might also ask how he or she thinks other family members are coping.

Let your child know that it is normal to have many different feelings about cancer. Ask if there is another adult he or she might like to talk with, such as a friend’s parent, a teacher, or a family member. Changes in your child’s behavior at home, school, or with friends that last longer than a few weeks can be a sign that he or she needs some help managing his or her feelings. Ask your child’s pediatrician or school guidance counselor about people in your community who can help you to help your child.

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Dr. Cynthia Moore is a psychologist with the Marjorie Korff Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She guides parents at all stages of cancer survivorship to help their children thrive.

For more ideas about talking with children, visit Massachusetts General Hospital’s Parenting at a Challenging Time program’s website at mghpact.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.

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