A woman’s children are likely to be affected by her breast cancer diagnosis. Depending on their age, children may know something is wrong without even being told.Change can be frightening for children. It can be difficult for them to adjust, especially if their mum looks different or is in hospital for a time. Children may worry about what the diagnosis means for them – whether they will be left alone and whether they might also develop cancer.
The information in this section is aimed particularly towards dependent children. However, a parent’s cancer diagnosis can be upsetting even for adults with children of their own. Having open and honest communication is generally helpful. Adult children might find it helpful to access further information about support through the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
How children may react to a breast cancer diagnosis
Children are often concerned about changes in the family and are worried that the well parent may also get sick. Children might also worry that they have caused their parent’s illness.
The effect of a woman’s cancer diagnosis on her children may be reflected in their behaviour. It can be helpful for women to tell a teacher at their child’s school about their cancer diagnosis so that the school understands the reason for any changes in behaviour.
Children might have a range of responses to their mum’s diagnosis, such as:
- being angry at her for being sick
- withdrawing from her
- clinging to her
- resenting that they need to help her
- behaving badly to cover up real feelings
- wanting to get sick to get attention
- going through the stages of grief their mother is going through
- being afraid that they will get cancer too.
How teenagers may react to a breast cancer diagnosis
Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to their mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer. They may be worried about how their mum is coping as well as dealing with their own feelings, and may take on the role of helping to run the house.
Daughters might worry whether they will also get breast cancer. It might be difficult for teenagers to talk about these issues.
Teenagers in the family might need to take on more household chores or help with their mother’s care. Disruption to their social outings or leisure activities can be issues for them. Sometimes this can make them feel that their needs are not being met. They might have an intense desire for life to return to ‘normal’ and feel resentful at the disruption to their lives and the change of roles within the family.
Teenagers might have a range of issues to face at this time, including:
- worry about the effect of the cancer on their parents’ marriage and the stability of the family
- feeling stigmatised because their mother has cancer
- fear about whether treatment will be effective
- concern about their relationship with the other parent
- dealing with any unresolved issues
- anxiety about the well parent
- feeling isolated from friends
- wanting to be closer to their mother.
Talking to children about a diagnosis of breast cancer
It can be helpful for parents to talk to their children about a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment so they understand what’s going on.
It’s important to answer their questions as honestly as possible in words they can understand. What they imagine to be happening is possibly more upsetting to them than the reality will be once it’s explained.
The following tips may be helpful:
- Ask each of your children how they’re feeling and recognise their distress.
- Try to understand what it is that they fear will happen. This will help you to decide what information they can handle and how it should be given.
- Talk to them about feelings as well as facts.
- Give simple, honest answers to their questions and correct any misunderstandings. Children respond well when they feel they are being given time especially for them.
- Try to explain what will happen next.
- Reassure them that even if things are not good at the moment there will be better times.
- Don’t make promises you may be unable to keep.
- Maintain a sense of routine and encourage them to socialise with their friends and participate in their usual activities.
- Reassure them that the breast cancer is not their fault — this is especially important for younger children.
- Adolescents may have mixed emotions, loyalties and coping abilities. In some respects, they thrive on being regarded as an adult, but during times of illness in the family, it can be really hard going. Be aware of this and look for signs that an adolescent needs a little extra support and encouragement.
Cancer Council NSW has developed a booklet about talking to children about cancer called When a parent has cancer: how to talk to your kids.
Find out more about: