Young women are more likely to have younger children when diagnosed with breast cancer. Discussing your cancer diagnosis with your children or other young family members such as nieces or nephews can be an incredibly daunting task. Remember that you know your children best, and be confident in your ability to determine what they need to know and what they don’t.
Don’t try to hide your illness. Even very young children will be able to tell when something is wrong, when you are stressed out or upset or when their schedule is changed. In the absence of a reason, they may imagine something much worse. Be open, honest and age appropriate.
If they are young, a simple explanation may do, such as, “Mommy is sick and she’s going to try and get better, so I’m going to be going to the hospital more often, and getting medicine.”
With older children, you may feel comfortable describing your type of cancer, where it is located, and so on. Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer.” Avoiding it may create a taboo around the word, leaving your children feeling like your diagnosis may be worse than you explained. Try to answer them as best you can while encouraging their questions.
It is important to prepare your children for what effects the treatment will have on you. If they are aware and prepared, they will have an easier time dealing with them. If they are young, be direct but gentle, using phrases such as “the medicine Mommy takes to get better is going to make her feel tired and sick, so she’s going to need to sleep quietly in her room, okay?” Be sure to explain to them some limits to their activities, such as asking them to play a little quieter, or if they are more clingy, explaining that you may not be able to cuddle for a while after your surgery.
If they are older and you feel comfortable, you can be much more detailed about where your cancer is and what your treatment plan is. Older children or teens may even want to attend some appointments with you to get a chance to meet your doctors and ask some questions themselves.
Although you cannot say for sure that you will be “fine,” it is important to assure your children that you and your doctors are working as hard as you can to get better. It is above all important to tell a younger child that just because you are sick doesn’t mean you are going away. Younger children may also have false ideas about your illness which need to be tackled. Assure them that they did not in any way make you get sick, and that they can’t “catch” cancer from you. Since colds and flus may be the only illnesses they have been exposed to, this may worry them.
Whether your children are young or old, assure them that their emotions are normal, and that it is okay to feel sad, confused, angry, unsure or anxious.
Remind your children that even though you may look different or feel sick or tired, you are still the same mom. Tell them that even though you might sometimes be too tired, sick or sore to play, you still love them. Your children may also respond well to small responsibilities. Even something simple, such as asking them to get mommy a glass of water or an extra pillow, can make them feel helpful and supportive. Encourage them to ask questions and talk to you about their feelings and concerns. Communication between you and your children is incredibly important to the emotional wellbeing of everyone involved.
Each child will react to the news of a cancer diagnosis differently. Your child may become quieter and worry about your health. Or they may act out, looking for attention in this new and different situation. They may wish to be closer to you, physically and emotionally, or they may pull away for fear of you leaving them. It is important to be open with your children, not only about your diagnosis, but also about your and their feelings. Reassure them that nothing they are feeling is wrong, and encourage them to share their emotions with you. You may not be able to change the way they react, but through open discussion, you will be able to better understand the reasons behind their behaviour. It is also important to notify your child’s school so that they can watch for any serious changes in academic performance or behaviour.
Discussing your diagnosis with children can be a very emotional ordeal. Fear can be a large part of your emotional relationship during diagnosis and treatment. Fear of leaving your children, fear of exposing them to the realities of serious illness, fear of scaring them. Beyond fear, you may experience a variety of feelings from sadness to despair, confusion to anger.
Your children can be catalysts for some of the deepest emotions you may experience during your breast cancer journey. Remember that it is important to be honest with your children, even explaining to them that you feel scared or sad or confused. But children also need to feel supported and confident that you are still the same mother they know and love. Remind them that what you are feeling is normal, and that they may feel the same way sometimes.