A breast cancer diagnosis is overwhelming and frightening, understandably prompting a swirl of emotions and a long list of questions. The worry and uncertainty is real for both the person who has been diagnosed and the family members who love her (or him, see Men Get Breast Cancer Too).
In my experience, one of the top-tier questions for parents is, “How do we tell the kids?” It’s a tough and important question, and a cancer diagnosis in a family with children poses unique challenges. Helping kids understand the cancer diagnosis and subsequently cope with the fears and changes that treatment may bring takes planning and support.
The Journal of Clinical Oncology published a great resource recently called Out of the Mouths of Babes: A Physician Discusses Her Cancer Diagnosis With Her Two Young Children. The article is written by Dr. Heather A. Thompson Buum, a physician who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. Even though she had years of experience delivering bad news to patients—she even had a 5-step model for the process—she was still nervous and unsure about how to tell her 8 and 11-year-old children that she had breast cancer.
After seeking advice and doing some research, Dr. Thompson Buum came up with a new 5-step plan, this time for breaking the bad news to her own children and then helping them process the diagnosis and cope with the surgery and treatments that lie ahead.
Her article explains how she approached each step, how her children reacted, and how they returned to some of the steps throughout her one-year journey to becoming cancer-free.
Step 1: Find out what they know: She asks, “What do you know about cancer?”
Step 2: Give them a warning: She says, “Well, along those lines, I am afraid that your Mom has something to tell you.”
Step 3: Share information: She tells them who her doctors are, what the plans are for surgery and follow-up treatments, and the expectations for her recovery.
Step 4: Respond to their feelings: She assures them, “It is perfectly normal to feel sad or scared.” Over the following months, she continues to validate their concerns, fear, and anxiety surrounding the diagnosis and treatments, and shares what has worked for her in coping with it.
Step 5: Plan the follow through: The family talks about sharing the information with friends and teachers, and what might be expected when she is away for surgery or treatments.
Dr. Thompson Buum summarizes, “Looking back, that was possibly the most difficult bad news I had to deliver because of the emotional impact on those I love. But it also taught me the importance of involving family, even young children, in the conversations early; it also reminded me about how intuitive and resilient children can be. Out of the mouths of babes…you have ordained strength (Psalms 8:2).”
If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, Out Of The Mouths of Babes is a thoughtful article that might offer you hope and encouragement in talking with your children about the diagnosis and treatment process.
In addition, the American Cancer Society also has several fantastic articles and resource suggestions for helping children cope with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, including:
- Why Tell Children That a Parent Has Cancer?
- How to Tell a Child That a Parent Has Cancer
- How Will My Child React?
- What If My Child Asks If I’m Going to Die?
- How Can I Reassure My Child That Everything Will Be Fine?
- What if My Child Needs Extra Help?
Know that you are not alone, and that there are people who are experienced and ready to help you and your family, including your children, with each step of the journey.
If you’d like to discuss your breast cancer diagnosis, I would be happy to consult with you. I am committed to serving breast cancer patients through my solo practice in Breast Surgical Oncology and General Surgery, with offices at Tennova Turkey Creek Medical Center in West Knoxville, at Tennova North Knoxville Medical Center in Powell, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital, and in Newport.
My extensive research and dedication to continual learning have distinguished me as a leader in the field. To learn more about my compassionate surgical care approach visit www.aaronmd.com or call (865) 692-1610.