The diagnosis of breast cancer can be distressing and difficult to understand for children. It is important to remember that children experience and made sense of their world in an entirely different way.

Children’s emotional and behavioural response to the diagnosis is often based on how their parents react to the crisis. They may sense their parents’ anxiety, fear and attempts to keep the diagnosis and treatment a secret. If children feel that they are not being told the truth, they lose trust in adults and this is very difficult to rectify. Keeping secrets about cancer and the effects of treatment may interpreted as:

  • The crisis is too terrible to share
  • The parent who is sick is going to die

Not knowing what is going on or how to cope can be terrifying for a child. Empower your children by educating them as early on as possible. A delay in sharing information demonstrates that you are not available or trustworthy. The depth and details of such information will depend on the age of your children.

The following principles are universal and may be useful in assisting your children to adjust to your diagnosis and subsequent treatment:

  • When you tell your children of your diagnosis, approach them together as parents or with a trusted friend.
  • Be available to answer your children’s questions.
  • Correct any misinformed ideas your children may have.
  • Name the type of cancer you have and where it is in your body. Show pictures of the area to help them understand why you need treatment.
  • Tell them the information in stages so they can assimilate it.
  • Explain how the doctors will treat the cancer and the order of treatment. Side effects like hair loss and fatigue are visible and your children need to be prepared.
  • Reassure your children that cancer is not contagious like a cold.
  • No-one is responsible for causing the cancer – children may mistakenly believe that they are responsible for your cancer.
  • Describe to your children how their lives will be affected as best you can at this stage.
  • Reassure them that they will always be cared for – that they are safe and secure.
  • Try to keep their daily routines the same.
  • Be demonstrative with the wide range of intense emotions around cancer. This will allow your children to understand the intensity of emotions but also witness that these strong emotions will not destroy the family unit.

Children’s reactions and behavioural responses to a diagnosis vary. For example, they may regress in their behaviour show poor performance at school or become very angry. Observing how they behave is a useful way of assessing how they are adjusting to your diagnosis and treatment.