Talking to Your Children about Breast Cancer

Health Column for the North County Times
By Natasha Riley, Program Manager, Vista Community Clinic
The Breast Health Program at Vista Community Clinic is partially funded by the Avon Foundation Breast Health Outreach Program and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure San Diego

Talking to Your Children about Breast Cancer
By Natasha Riley

I recently spoke with a young woman who was undergoing chemotherapy as part of her treatment regiment for breast cancer. She was hospitalized for several days due to complications. While in the hospital, her two-year-old son was brought in to see her. At some point during the visit, the two-year-old noticed that his mom’s hair was falling out. He animatedly pointed it out to his mom. She asked him if it looked bad and the little boy said no. A few minutes later, the conversation was repeated. Only this time when the mom asked if her hair looked bad, the toddler exclaimed “yes!” I was later told by the mom’s co-survivor that the little boy seemed to be reluctant to go to his mom after all of her hair fell out. Of course, not being therapists, they did not fully understand the reaction of the two-year-old. Was he afraid of his mom? Was he worried? We don’t really know. However, whenever the mom vomited from the chemotherapy or showed other signs of distress, the young son would go to his mom, touch her and say, “It’s OK, mommy.”
When speaking with another young woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she told me her middle school- aged daughter came home from school one day and asked her if she was going to die. The daughter had told her teacher that her mom had breast cancer, and the teacher said that most women who have breast cancer die. The mother, of course, was surprised at this and not sure how to respond. She tried to comfort and reassure her daughter. The mother did eventually lose her battle with breast cancer.
These are two examples of the many issues that breast cancer patients face. Not only do they have to face daunting tasks of treatment decisions and survival issues, they are faced with helping their children understand something that they themselves may not understand, or may not be in the emotional state necessary to effectively communicate with their children. These are also examples of how a breast cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. According to the American Psychological Association, “When one member of a family has cancer, the whole family is affected.” Family members are considered to be “secondary patients.” Children can often sense emotional tension in the home, including anxiety, fear and uncertainty brought on by a breast cancer diagnosis. Many professions recommend telling children in a language they understand and seeking the assistance of a mental health professional can help parents decide when and how to talk to their children.
When asked how to talk to a two- and five-year-old about breast cancer, Tamara Shulman, Ph.D., F.A.A.C.P, said: “Children have a kind of emotional radar and of course they sense that the parent is upset. Young children may not even be able to verbalize what they’re feeling, but they know there is something wrong. In this situation, it would be very important for you to get some emotional support for yourself to help you clarify and cope with your own feelings so that you can communicate more clearly and effectively with your young children.” (breastcancer.org – find excerpts from an online conference May, 2006).
There are a number of resources that can assist breast cancer patients with talking to their children and helping them to understand what is happening. Kids Konnected is a non-profit organization with the mission of providing friendship, understanding, education and support for kids and teens who have a parent with cancer or have lost a parent with cancer. The program was founded in 1993 by an eleven-year-old boy whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. According to the founder, “The success of our program lies in the tears of a child being wiped away by a caring friend, and in the quiet ‘thanks’ of a sick parent who can worry less about the emotional stress their illness has on their children.” Kids Konnected has programs for children age four years and older. They also have support groups throughout the country, including San Diego County.
The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center has a resource guide entitled, “Talking With Children about a Loved One’s Cancer: Patient Education Resource Center (PERC)
Information Guide.” The resource guide provides a list of brochures, books and articles for parents and for children 4 years of age and older.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has a number of brochures and fact sheets:

  • “What’s Happening to Mom Booklet”
  • “Facts for Life Series: “Talking to your Children
  • Facts for Life Series: “Talking with your Partner”

To learn more contact:
Kids Konnection: Toll Free: 800.899.2866, email: info@kidskonnected.org
BreastCancer.Org: www.breastcancer.org
University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center: www.cancer.med.umich.edu/support/information_guides.shtml
American Cancer Society: 1-800-ACS-2345; www.cancer.org
National Cancer Institute: 1-800-4-CANCER (422-6237); TTY- 1-800-332-8615;
National Institutes for Health: www.clinicaltrials.gov
Susan G. Komen for the Cure: www.komen.org