So I told my 6 children that I had breast cancer – and what I would have liked to have done differently

Experts recommend telling children about a cancer diagnosis. (Photo: Getty)

Experts recommend telling children about a cancer diagnosis. (Photo: Getty)

When I first found the lump while breastfeeding my youngest, my husband and I were up front with our children, letting them know that doctors only wanted to be thorough when performing a lumpectomy. Since the odds were in my favor with only a 10% chance of getting cancer, we felt confident in reassuring them that this was just a precautionary measure.

When I received the email notification to check my patient portal for pathology results, I scanned for familiar terms. I read “ductal carcinoma in situ” — carcinoma meant cancer, Google confirmed — and went to the couch to tell my husband it was stage 0 and that I was going to choose the more drastic of two treatment options, for my own peace of mind .

Next, we would tell our six children, ages 16 to 2. While I was able to discuss things calmly with my husband, I worried about how I would reassure them that I would be fine when I was so scared myself. My greatest fear was that I would leave my children without a mother. My mind knew that a 99% survival rate meant this wouldn’t kill me, but my heart was impossible to convince.

I spoke to my eldest first. My brilliant, rational teenager listened to the facts and realized that this wasn’t great news, but it would be okay too. Next came my son, who was silent and perhaps uncomfortable when he heard his mother mention her breasts. Still, he was easily convinced that the next few months would be rocky, but that everything would end well.

We knew the younger ones would require a very direct yet simple approach. Mommy has breasts, the doctor has to take everything out.

I knew the most difficult conversation would be with my middle child. I feared that this news would disturb their peace. Her friend had lost her mother to ovarian cancer the year before, and even though our illnesses were so different, I knew in her young spirit that she would bond them.

I didn’t know what I was doing when I had to talk to my kids about my diagnosis, but I’ve since learned from experts that my gut feeling was mostly right. There were also some parts that I could have handled better.

Tell each of your children individually

dr Shanthi Gowrinathan, a psychiatrist who specializes in both women’s psychiatry and psycho-oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says it’s best to talk to each child individually, as I did, as they will most likely require different approaches to information. “Some may need time to process alone, while others may need to voice their feelings or thoughts,” says Gowrinathan.

Strive for honesty

Gowrinathan says honesty isn’t about telling the whole truth; Rather, it’s about being as honest as possible, taking into account your child’s age and information needs. I was completely open with my 16-year-old — sharing my treatment plan, survival statistics and the gist of my diagnosis — while my 8-year-old just knew I was going to have surgery and that it would take some time before I could could squeeze hard again, because that was information she could understand and process.

Because of the powerful impact of my diagnosis, I knew I needed to share immediately rather than waiting the two months until my surgery even if there would be no outward signs of illness. “It’s important to remember that children take on emotional tones, and if they feel their parents are upset or uncomfortable, it’s best to tell them sooner rather than later,” says Gowrinathan.

Find a therapist for your child

I didn’t do this right away, and I wish I had done it so my kids could have someone to talk to if they wanted to. provides targeted support to children affected by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis through its oncology social worker program.

Do regular check-ins

was last year rough for my family when we were going through periods of separation while I was in surgery, recovered and not able to pick up my little ones or even take the kids to the beach or pool for months because I couldn’t go. As much as I wish I could carry an eraser with me all the time, it has happened and I need to talk about it with my kids on a regular basis.

During and after treatment, Gowrinathan recommends holding family reunions or individual check-ins to give children time to ask questions. If the treatment will change how you look or behave, such as not being able to pick you up or hug my children, it’s important to let them know what to expect.

stay real

You and your child have an established relationship, and disclosing a diagnosis is not the time to get formal and clinical. Erin Parker, a single mother from Albany, NY, was recently diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, and when she told her teenage daughter, the first thing she wanted to know was if she was going to die. Parker said, “Hell no!” because that was their relationship. In return, her daughter quipped, “Well mom, it’s not like you need your boobs. It’s not like you have a boyfriend!” which reassured Parker and allowed her daughter to experience the emotional release that comes with laughter. Although my kids wouldn’t have reacted that way, it was important that Parker’s daughter could remain authentic in the midst of this heated conversation.

Cancer is a scary word for people of all ages, and speaking about it honestly and without fear with our children is an important skill. They need space to process your diagnosis just like we do, safely and securely, and letting them know we’re still available is essential. Even though I was scared, I knew that my children needed rest and comfort from me, and it was also a way of calming myself.

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