How to Talk to Children About Breast Cancer

Talking with children about a parent’s or grandparent’s cancer is difficult, but opening a dialogue with children can help them feel more comfortable about asking questions as well as provide reassurance. Conversations with children must be tailored to their age and developmental stage, but even young children can sense when something is wrong. If they don’t know what’s going on, they may imagine something even worse, or imagine that it may be their fault.1

Suggestions for talking with kids about cancer

Parents are the best judge of how to talk to their children. Here are some helpful tips and topics to include2:

  • When discussing a diagnosis, reassure children that there is nothing they did, said, or thought that made you have cancer.
  • Explain that many people live with cancer for many years.
  • Help them understand what to expect when you’re going through treatment.
  • Encourage them to express their feelings and explain that it’s natural to feel sad, angry, and/or scared.
  • Young children may worry who will take care of them. Explain how others may be helping with some of the things you usually do.
  • Give them suggestions on how they can help you feel better, such as helping with chores around the house, drawing you a picture, or giving you hugs. Encourage them to continue to participate in school, sports, and their other activities.
  • Be hopeful and honest.

When advanced breast cancer is terminal

If breast cancer stops responding to treatment or you choose to stop treatment for other reasons, the conversation changes to one about death and dying. Children of different ages have different needs and levels of understanding, but honesty is important. Avoid using words that try to soften death, like “pass away” or “go to sleep,” as children may not understand what you are saying.3

Young children may not absorb the idea of death in one conversation. Although it is difficult, you may need to have several talks. While nothing can prepare a child for losing a beloved parent or grandparent, having the conversation can help them begin to deal with their emotions and thoughts.

Resources

It can be helpful to have a spouse or partner with you when speaking with children about your cancer. However, if that isn’t possible or if you need additional support, ask a social worker, clergy (such as a minister or pastor), nurse, or your doctor to be there with you. Local libraries can also be a good resource, as they may have books that can help children of different ages understand more about cancer.1,3

Several organizations also offer help for talking with and supporting children. CancerCare offers oncology social workers to provide education and support to parents and counseling to children. Their services are available free online, by phone, and in person. American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute have information and tips on talking to children about cancer on their websites.

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: December 2018.
View References
  1. Helping children when a family member has cancer. CancerCare. Available at https://www.cancercare.org/publications/22-helping_children_when_a_family_member_has_cancer. Accessed 11/8/18.
  2. Talking to children about your cancer. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/talk-to-children. Accessed 11/8/18.
  3. How do I talk to my children about dying? American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/children-and-cancer/when-a-family-member-has-cancer/dealing-with-parents-terminal-illness/how-to-explain-to-child.html. Accessed 11/8/18.