Telling Your Children about Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Talking to Your Daughters About Breast Cancer
Mothers and daughters should talk about breast cancer prevention, whether or not breast cancer runs in your family.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Sarah Sparks, a busy 30-year-old mother of two in Gardner, Kan., will always remember a certain snowy day this past January.
“At 9:30 in the morning I got the call — it was breast cancer,” she says, referring to the lump she discovered in the shower just a few weeks earlier. “I thought, I’m 29 with no breast cancer family history; how on earth is this possible?” she recalls. After the news settled Sparks knew she needed to sit down with her daughters and explain the situation.
Because of the snow that day Sparks's two daughters — ages 6 and 8 — weren't at school. “It was one phone call after another that day; I never had tears, but I would ‘disappear’ from time to time,” she says. “I found out about the breast cancer in the morning, and at dinnertime, my husband Jason and I told our girls. I wanted the dust to settle a little and to know as much as I could, in what short time I could, before we told them. We knew we had to tread lightly, because two weeks before this, we had to put our 4-year-old dog Hank down due to cancer. Jason just opened his mouth and said, ‘Mommy has cancer.’ "
As Sparks and her husband expected, their daughters’ reaction to the breast cancer news was, “Hank cancer?” From there, the family had a long talk over dinner. “We let the girls know that mommy had ‘mommy cancer’ and Hank had ‘dog cancer,’ ” she says.
Sparks and her husband were honest with their girls. “We let them know the breast cancer wasn’t going to kill mommy, but it was going to make me very sick," Sparks says. "I was going to lie on the couch a lot and take lots of naps. We also told them the medicine I was going to be on would make me lose my hair and that, in a few months, the doctors would remove my breasts and ‘new’ ones would be built for mommy.”
Sparks let her daughters feel the breast cancer and told them the lump didn't hurt. “We also made sure to make it very clear the breast cancer wouldn’t change who I am — just how I look — and that if they had any questions at any time, they were free to ask," she says. "They asked when my hair was going to fall out, finished dinner, and went off to do cartwheels in the living room."
Since that snowy day, Sparks has carefully walked the line between sharing her breast cancer experience with her daughters and scaring them. “Everything new I learn, they learn," she says. "Some things may get a little sugar-coated, but I tell them everything. They know about all my doctors’ appointments and my blood counts — they probably don’t care, but they know.”
As a mom who enjoys mother and daughter activities, Sparks has also tried to make her breast cancer experience as lighthearted as possible for her girls. “We are having a head-shaving party, and they are helping me plan it," she says. "They also go wig shopping with me. I am trying to make this fun and not scary.”
Sparks's daughters are still young, but in the future, she'll also need to talk to them about their breast cancer family history and breast cancer prevention. According to Breastcancer.org, a woman’s risk for breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a mother, sister, or daughter who has been diagnosed with the disease.
Mothers and Daughters Talking About Breast Cancer: A Professional Opinion
Sandi Kafenbaum, LCSW, a counseling coordinator at Adelphi New York Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Program, says that Sparks has the right idea. “When it comes to discussing breast cancer and other serious illnesses with children, the first rule is to tell the truth in a hopeful way,” she says. “Sometimes it is hard when a woman is first diagnosed with breast cancer because she is in a state of shock and turmoil. You want to include the kids, but not scare them. And sometimes it takes some time to come to terms with the breast cancer diagnosis before you can present a calm, truthful picture."
It depends on your daughters’ ages, but Kafenbaum also says it is important to discuss breast cancer prevention, whether a mother has had breast cancer or not. “Young women need to learn the balance of how to take care of themselves without having the burden and increased anxiety that comes with breast cancer family history,” she notes. “Mothers with breast cancer should stress to their daughters that preventing breast cancer is important, but they don’t need to be obsessive and crazy about it.”
Kafenbaum offers the following advice on how mothers with breast cancer should talk to their daughters:
Make kids feel a part of things.Keeping kids in the loop about breast cancer will make them feel good, so let them be a part of it. If you’ve just had chemotherapy or surgery for breast cancer, let your daughters do small things around the house to help out or bring you something to drink. Avoid giving them too many responsibilities though — it’s important for kids to have as normal a childhood as possible, even if mom has breast cancer.
Encourage your kids to have fun.Show your kids it is okay to read funny stories, go outside and play, and have fun — even when mom is going through breast cancer treatment, says Kafenbaum.
Take away the burden. When faced with a mother who has breast cancer, some kids may wonder, ‘Did I cause this? Will it happen to me? Did I say I wish you were dead once, and it’s all my fault?’ It’s important to put these worries to rest.
Teach your kids a valuable lesson.For kids of any age, breast cancer can teach them that even though something is challenging, you can deal with it, talk about it, be proactive, and get through it as a family.
Talk to your physician about breast cancer family history. Mothers with breast cancer who have older daughters should have a discussion with a doctor and ask how you should handle addressing the topic of breast cancer prevention. Specifically, ask a doctor if your daughter should be screened regularly for the disease or if genetic testing is recommended.
Get help if you need it.If you are a mother with breast cancer who is struggling with how to talk to your daughter or you are having other difficulties, talk to a therapist or your child’s school for guidance.
“Overall, when it comes to mothers and daughters talking about breast cancer, you want to include the kids, but not scare them,” Kafenbaum says.
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