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The First 48 Hours: Breaking the News to Your Children

It’s one of the first challenges you'll encounter. Expert Patient Beth Brophy shares tips on talking to your kids about breast cancer.

By Beth Brophy

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The only thing harder than learning you have cancer is having to tell your kids about it. My daughters were 5 and 8 when I was diagnosed, and I agonized over what to tell them. Learning you have breast cancer is a terrifying experience—you want to try not to pass that sense of overwhelming anxiety to them.

Unfortunately, you do have to tell your children. Even if it were possible to hide it, doing so would forever erode their trust in you. As you and your family anticipate your treatment regimen, telling your children the truth about your illness can alleviate their anxiety and fear.

While you may want to delay sharing the bad news, especially if school is about to start or there’s another important event coming up in your children’s lives, don’t wait more than a few days. They are likely to pick up that something is wrong, or overhear the alarming news from someone else, which will be a lot worse for them.

When you sit down with your partner and your children, the adults should convey calm and optimism, no matter how scared you and your partner may feel. In fact, I made it a rule to never break down in front of my children (and consequently spent a lot of time behind the locked bathroom door with the water running).

Don’t use euphemisms for the word “cancer.” The sooner we all got used to hearing and saying the terrifying word “cancer,” the sooner it lost its mystifiying power. Even if you avoid the word “cancer,” your children are sure to hear it from someone else at some point.

Be truthful and don’t over-promise. Cancer treatments may bring some unpleasant surprises and may result in changes to the family’s routines. Schedules may have to be rearranged and family trips postponed or cancelled. But, for the most part, do everything humanly possible to let the kids keep to their routines. On weekends, for example, my husband was responsible for the kids and getting them where they needed to go. This is a good time to realize that your friends and family want to help. When friends offer to take your kids for sleepovers, or drive extra carpools, or buy groceries, you’ll do yourself a huge favor by learning to say, “Yes, thanks.”

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