Breast cancer affects the entire family. Although you may be the one undergoing treatment, the kids in your life will have their world turned upside down by the C word too. Here's how to help kids, including young children, understand what the person with breast cancer is going through and enable them to cope.

By Katie Mills Giorgio
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The night before I had surgery to remove a tumor from my breast, as I was telling my teenage son good night, he turned and said, “Mom, is there a chance this could be bad news?” My heart squeezed tight that evening. We did not yet know that my tumor was cancerous, but when we found out a week later, I knew we needed to tell our kids—then 10 and 13 years old—every step of the way. As the often coined phrase goes, “no one fights alone.” I learned that kids, even young ones, are a part of making that statement true.

Of course, it’s always tempting to shield our children from the difficulties cancer brings. But kids are perceptive. They will likely sense something is wrong even if you don’t tell them about your breast cancer diagnosis, which in turn will only make the journey more difficult. Routines in your household are sure to be upset. So making sure all members of the household know what is going on will strengthen you as a family and help you all navigate the days, weeks, and months ahead. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you sit down to talk with them.

A beautiful young ethnic woman with cancer holds her preschool-age daughter in her lap by their living window. They are holding and playing with a little plastic toy and mom is smiling. She is also wearing a headscarf. (A beautiful young ethnic woman
Image courtesy of Getty.

Be Straightforward

Kids want to know they can always trust you. So make sure you give kids the truth as they will be able to understand it, keeping their age and maturity in mind. Although they don’t need to know every detail, do explain your diagnosis and your treatment plan. It’s also important they know that cancer is not something they can catch and that it’s not anyone’s fault you are sick.

Tell Them What Will Change

Giving your kids a heads-up that you might lose your hair, lose one or both breasts, or that you’ll possibly look very tired is important. These physical changes can be scary for them, so talking them through beforehand is key. You might even, for instance, pick out fun matching hats if you lose your hair. Then talk about not-so-visible changes. You might be exhausted. You might get grumpy or be short with them at times. Explain that the medicines you are taking to help make you better are strong and your body is doing a lot of hard work to heal you. Remind them that these changes—the ones they can and cannot see—are all temporary and you are still the same mom they know and love so well.

Explain That Some Things Won’t Change

Kids thrive on structure, so assure them not everything will change. They will still go to school or daycare. You will still have family dinners. There will still be screen time limits and the expectation that they help with chores. Lots of activities will go on as usual. There may be interruptions here or there and definitely a lot more doctor appointments, family life will go on. It can be helpful to carve out special time to focus on your kids, whether on a daily basis—like reading time or watching a favorite TV show—or once a week for treats or outings.

Let Them Know It’s OK to Show Emotions

You can tell your kids you are scared. You can tell them you get nervous. But try to create balance and tell them you are still happy, too, and that they can be as well. Just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean everything has to be sad until your treatment is over. Kids will thrive on seeing your positive approach and optimistic outlook. Don’t make any promises about the future, but reassure kids you are staying strong and your medical care team is doing their job to treat you.

Open the Door for Questions

Make sure your kids understand you are always ready and willing to answer any questions they might have. Depending on how old your kids are, you might consider bringing them to an appointment. My husband and kids came along for my last radiation appointment (ringing the bell is a big deal!). Before my treatment, the kind, knowledgeable nurses showed my inquisitive kids how the radiation equipment worked. They learned a lot, and it took the mystery out of where I went to fight my cancer.

Get Them a Journal

A cancer journey is a rollercoaster. Talking with your kids and answering questions is vital. But there are honestly days when you won’t want to talk about it. Giving kids a journal where they can reflect and write down how they are feeling can be a big relief. (Try the Faith Hope Love Breast Cancer Awareness Notebook Journal, $8.99 on Amazon.) If your kids aren’t old enough yet to write out their feelings, letting them draw pictures to express their emotions can be as powerful and therapeutic.

Involve Your Tribe

Once you’ve talked to the kids, make sure you fill in the rest of your tribe. It’s important to connect with teachers, coaches, caregivers, and extended family because these trusted adults can help support your family. They can also keep an eye out for any changes in behavior or attitude and help you keep a pulse on how your kids are faring during your cancer journey.


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