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Telling your children

Telling your children that you have breast cancer can be difficult. Few children understand the idea of cancer, and when it becomes part of their family life they need reassurance and support.

Children are very perceptive and they can often sense if something is wrong. Sometimes if children don’t understand a situation they can blame themselves. Children can also feel isolated and upset if no one explains to them what is happening.

Children as young as four will have a basic understanding of illness. Talking openly with your children about your breast cancer and giving it a name will help them come to terms with the facts.

Younger children may need to be told the same information multiple times. Try to respect their questions, even if you’ve already answered them. To cope well with the situation, children usually need:

  • easy-to-understand information
  • reassurance that they are okay and that it’s not their fault
  • ongoing love and attention
  • an opportunity to be part of your care
  • the support of their family and friends

Most children will want to be told that they can still do normal things, such as go to school, play sport and see friends. If your child is in primary school, it is a good idea to tell their teacher. If your child is in secondary school, they may not want their teachers to know. If this is the case, try to respect your older child’s wishes and encourage them to talk to their friends and family members about what they are feeling. Counselling can also be a great support for older children.

Psychiatrist Associate Professor Jane Turner has the following advice for helping your child come to terms with your breast cancer diagnosis:

Things that could help:

  • Talking
  • Maintaining normal routine
  • Negotiating tasks
  • Telling children it is not their fault
  • Encouraging children to participate in sport and normal activities
  • Giving information that is appropriate for their age, and in stages
  • Letting children talk, even about difficult things
  • Letting the school know
  • Letting them see that you are upset sometimes.

Things that probably won’t help

  • Always pretending everything is okay
  • Expecting children to spend all of their time at home ‘because time together is precious’
  • Giving orders
  • Keeping secrets
  • Letting go of structure and rules
  • Rushing to reassure
  • Talking about possible outcomes into the future
  • Telling children to be ‘good for mummy’
  • Trying to fix everything for them
Initially, I tried to hide what was happening to me from my daughter. But I realised that she needed to know. When I explained things in small pieces she coped well. – Karen

More information

  • There is more information in BCNA's My Journey about talking to children.
  • The Medikidz comic helps explain breast cancer through comic book adventures for eight to 12 year olds. It is available to order here
  • Communicate with members of our Online Network. They may be able to share their experience of telling their children about breast cancer.
  • Cancer Council's website provides advice on how to speak to children in different age brackets about cancer. 
  • CanTeen’s Parenting through Cancer booklet provides parents with adolescent or young adult children with insights into common questions and issues that many parents with cancer face.
  • Visit CanTeen’s online community for parents impacted by cancer: CanTeen Connect for Parents. This community connects you with others experiencing similar challenges and free access to counsellors for support around parenting and cancer.
  • You can also link your children (aged 12-25) to CanTeen to get free youth-specific support. Encourage them to our join our online community and connect with other young people impacted by cancer or call 1800 835 932 to find out more.
  • If you have older children, you may like to show them our Caring for someone with early breast cancer page.