As difficult as it is for you to come to grips with a diagnosis of breast cancer, you’re also faced with the challenge of breaking the news to your children and family. Adults may be more accepting of the diagnosis; they may already know someone with cancer and understand the course of the illness. They also have an easier time understanding medical terms, treatment plans, and survival rates.

When it comes time to tell your children, keep in mind their ages and their capacity for comprehending. You don't want to scare kids or give them more (or even less) information than they can handle. Where and how should you begin?

Toddlers to School-Age Children

The key to explaining your illness to very young children is describing it in terms they’ll understand. For example, they know what the words “boo boo” or “ouchy” mean, and that kisses and bandages can fix these things. Try explaining that your “boo boo” is on the inside where no one can see it, and that you may have a “boo boo” every day.

If your physical appearance changes due to treatment, calm a worried or fearful child with creative use of hats and scarves. Playing “dress up” can be a wonderful diversion to fear.

Older Children

School-age children understand a bit more about illness because, by that age, they’ve probably experienced it to some degree. You can use information they’ve learned in health and science class as a means of teaching them about your cancer. Explain that much like with any other illness, you may be tired or in pain, and their help with simple tasks may be needed.

Make sure your children understand that, unlike a cold or flu, cancer isn’t contagious and they won’t “catch it.” Children at this age also need to know that your illness isn’t a result of something they’ve said or done. Encourage them to continue to enjoy their activities and interests as usual.

Anticipate questions about the length of time you’ll be ill, whether or not you’ll lose your hair, and if you’re going to die. Explain that you, the family, and the doctors are going to put up a great fight against cancer. While you don’t want to scare them, you also don’t want to promise, “everything is going to be just fine.” Giving children a false sense of hope can cause extreme feelings of anger and resentment if you don’t recover as they expect.


Many teens have some knowledge of what cancer is from science classes. Some may have a friend with a parent who battled cancer. They’ll understand the fatality of the illness and can research statistics, including the incidence of familial cancer and survival rates.

Discuss your treatment plan and possible side effects, which may affect your ability to carry out normal duties. Explain that their help may be needed to maintain the daily household routine. Don’t be surprised if their first concern is how your illness will negatively impact their lives and plans. Teens often express anger and lash out at a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Help them find support and encourage them to journal and talk about their feelings with friends.

The entire family may struggle at first news of a cancer diagnosis, until a new routine is established and expectations are expressed and shared. Encourage family members to ask questions. Suggest holding family meetings, so you can check in with each other and see how everyone is coping. The most important thing is that everyone should feel supported—including you.