How To Tell Your Children That You Have Breast Cancer

One of the hardest things my husband and I have had to do since all of this started, and indeed, ever in our lives, is to sit down and tell our young children that I had breast cancer.

We waited until a few days after my diagnosis before we let on that anything was going on. This was very difficult, because during those initial days leading up to and following the diagnosis I was on the phone so much that I was constantly tiptoeing around the house, shutting myself in rooms and hunching over the receiver trying to arrange doctors appointments, get my pathology slides FedExed to London from the US and other delightful logistical nonsense. All while pretending to be same ole Mommy.

The “you have cancer” call came the evening of the girls’ first day back at school after Christmas holidays, January 3. That was a Tuesday. Bill and I decided that we would tell the kids that weekend so that we could (a) have time to figure out how to do it, (b) procrastinate it for a few days for mental health reasons, and (c) keep a close eye on the girls over the weekend in case they seemed anxious or upset following the big talk.

As I think back to that time, which seems like ages ago but in fact was not so long ago at all, I can tell you right now that my thinking was not nearly as clear as it is currently. I was still reeling from the news, as was Bill, and I really wasn’t sure how to go about telling the kids. What was clear from the get-go, however, and what we both agreed, was that we would tell them. We never considered otherwise.

Let me give you some background.

Our girls, who were seven and four at the time, are no slouches. They are smart and perceptive. The first-born is fairly high-strung and a bit of a worrier, which I consider to be unsurprising for a first child. The little one is more laid back but highly sensitive and empathetic and seems to notice everything around her even when you think she is not paying attention.

Some people hinted that given their ages, the kids, particularly the “baby,” wouldn’t really “get it.” That they wouldn’t understand what was going on and the whole thing would just wash over them. Whenever I fielded a comment such as this I tried to let it slide, fighting that honey badger instinct to tell the well-meaning yet misguided person, pardon my French, that that was a load of bullshit. No one knows your own children the way you do. Trust your instincts.

So, we set the date. We would tell them on Saturday morning after breakfast so that they would be fed and comfortable and then we would have the whole rest of the day and the next day to watch them, let the news percolate and evaluate the fallout.

In preparation, I did a little bit of internet research on some cancer websites. I watched a video about a woman telling her kids she had breast cancer. That particular video involved two children with a large age gap (one was a teenager), so the mother decided to tell the kids separately because they would have different levels of understanding and different emotional needs. I thought that was an excellent point, though it didn’t apply to our children. We would be telling them together.

Then, at one of my doctors appointments, I was given a book about talking to young children about early stage breast cancer entitled Mummy’s Lump. It goes very briefly through the mother finding a lump in her breast, going to the doctor and being told the lump is bad and is breast cancer, and the mother having surgery to remove the lump, then chemotherapy and radiation. At the end, the family is pictured on the beach and the mom is in the water, her hair having grown back, playing with one of the kids. Short and sweet.

I flipped through it and decided that it wasn’t half bad and would use it as a prop to guide my discussion. Now that I reread it, four months later and with some perspective, I actually think that it is pretty well done, considering the topic. Here’s why:

(1) It uses the word “cancer.” Using the c-word allows YOU, the parent, to contextualize the disease for your children, who may have terrifying associations with the word (or may develop them if you fail to contextualize it and they later hear or see something) if they have heard or seen something about it, say on TV or from a classmate.

(2) It explains that the cancer is not contagious, and that it is not the children’s fault (or anyone’s, indeed) that it occurred.

(3) It depicts the mom in a nice hospital room with flowers and chocolates (hey, these things are important!).

(4) It briefly outlines the treatments and explains that such treatments might make the mom feel poorly but that they will ultimately help (kill it!) and then she will feel better.

Now, there is no one perfect book for everyone. For instance, it appears to me that this particular book was written about someone having a lumpectomy rather than a double mastectomy with several reconstruction surgeries ahead. This doesn’t matter. You can pick and choose what you want from this or another book and fill in the rest.

When we told our kids about my cancer, it was very early in the process and we did not know what treatment I would be having. Nevertheless, we talked about chemo and radiation to help prepare the kids in the event I needed those treatments. We decided not to wait until we had a clearer picture of what was going to happen because the slinking around the house was getting old fast and Bill and I both knew that the kids would start to figure out something was wrong. Not telling them when we did, in our view, would have been insensitive and disrespectful.

Here is what I did not find in the book, and my own two cents, having thought about these issues and discussed them with a preschool educator whom I highly respect:

(1) Do not lie, but at the same time do not reveal to your young child any anxieties you have about dying. Your child wants to know that he or she will be cared for and that you will be around to do that. Sharing your own thoughts regarding this could produce a great deal of anxiety in a small child.

Let me qualify (1) above by saying that I am not giving any advice about later stage cancers or circumstances in which it is known that a parent is not likely to recover. I am focused here on early stage breast cancer, for which there is a good recovery rate. I am also not talking about discussing these matters with older children, which is a different ball game altogether and something that I haven’t had to think about.

(2) Explain to your children that it is all right to feel sad or upset about the cancer (and all it entails), and that it is okay to ask you questions about it. When we talked to our children, we told them that they should feel free to talk about the cancer and to ask me any questions they had about it, at any time. Of course, this has come back to bite me in all sorts of hilarious ways — but that is fodder for a separate blog on the funny things children say, which I promise to do in the near future.

I found that if I talked regularly (and joked, frequently) about my cancer with the children, it became less of a scary thing. I sprinkled it into conversations here and there, and it became the new (temporary — because I’m killing it) normal. Taboo isn’t good when it comes to something like this. Respect your child and allow them to hear about, process and talk about the issue. Then it might be a little less scary.

(3) Find someone at your child’s school (teachers, guidance counsellor, etc.) who is a safe person to talk to for your child and reach out to them to make sure they are keeping an eye on your child. Let your child know that they can go talk to this person about the cancer if they want to, but don’t force the issue. I know that my seven-year-old doesn’t talk about it at school. School is a safe haven for her where she doesn’t have to talk or think about my cancer. But she knows she can and whom she can go to if she ever wants to.

So how did it go? Well, I’d have to say really pretty well. The older child looked a bit stricken and went silent for a while. She had heard the word cancer before and definitely had some associations with it so I was happy to leap in and contextualize it for her as a disease that can be beaten. The younger child seemed to focus on the chemotherapy and the fact that I might lose my hair. She didn’t like that one bit and kept asking me (every day practically) if I would need “the medicine that would make my hair fall out.” Well if you have read my post “Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo,” you know that in the end she decided that bald wasn’t so bad. So for her it was all just a matter of easing into the idea.

What you don’t discuss can become very scary. Like the boogeyman. What you do discuss, however, you control to a certain extent. You can contextualize it. You can mock it. You can rock it. You can KILL IT.

You certainly can’t control everything, but feeling some control here is a very very good thing. Trust me.