Talking with Family and Friends
Telling people who are mature and sensitive enough to handle a disclosure of cancer will relieve you of the burden of inventing explanations, or being on guard against discovery of your illness. You may find unexpected sources of support and understanding from others, including people who have struggled with a life-threatening illness.
Here are ten suggestions on communicating with your friends and family:
- Be honest and direct. Give clear guidelines about what others can do to help you.
- Don’t assume people know what you need, or what the “right” thing to do is.
If you don’t feel like company, say that you appreciate their concern but would much rather they visit you at another time, when you feel better.
- Some people are better at coping with a crisis than others. Most people truly care, but don’t know what to say or do. Accept their limitations.
- If you just need to be with someone or want them to just listen to you, tell them so. Explain to them that you don’t expect answers or solutions; you just want them to listen to your concerns.
- Coping with breast cancer may reveal long-standing problems in a relationship, like poor communication or lack of trust—problems clearly not caused by cancer. Recognizing this may allow you to let go of old behaviors and patterns while identifying ongoing stressful relationships.
- Even thoughtful family and friends may be impatient for you to “get over” your experience. You have survived an ordeal—do not let their expectations pressure you to ignore your feelings.
- Give yourself permission to explore ways to enhance your health and self-esteem. Focus on building a stronger sense of self and purpose to survive your treatments.
- You can become preoccupied with the cancer so much that certain feelings linger and you may become stuck in the process of emotional healing. Get assistance from a support group or therapist to help you move forward.
- While it is not your responsibility to take care of others’ feelings, understand that they, too, are trying to cope.
You may find more information about talking to friends and family in our booklet Every Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer (PDF file).
How to Talk to Your Children
Parents find it very difficult to tell their children about cancer. There are a couple of basic guidelines that can help parents discuss their cancer diagnosis with their children. However, the type of discussion you have with your children will depend on their ages.
Children of any age can sense when something is wrong and they usually imagine the worst possible problem. Telling them what is going on can actually alleviate some anxiety and fear that they may be feeling. It is important to answer only the questions your children ask and nothing more. Children, especially between the ages of 6-10, can only handle little bits of information at a time. As they ask for more detail you can provide it to them, but try to focus on what their concerns are for the moment.
Answer your children’s questions as honestly as possible. An environment of honesty and openness can help children deal with the crisis that results when a parent is diagnosed with cancer.
Up to 2 years old
For small children, their biggest concern comes from the disruption of their daily routine. They do not understand the concept of cancer, but will be disturbed if their parent is away for several days, or is too tired to play. Establish a new routine as soon as possible, one that can accommodate your recovery and treatment needs. Ask for help from friends and family to give them extra attention and love.
Ages 2 to 7 years
For younger children, it is very common that they assume they might be responsible for you getting cancer. For instance, they may think that because they got in trouble at school you got cancer. Use simple terms to explain your illness, like “good” and “bad” cells. Remind your children often that cancer is not something you catch and that they did not do anything to cause your cancer.
Try to explain the treatments and procedures that you will have in terms of how it will affect them and their routine. For instance, “I will be having chemotherapy next week, and it will make me very tired. I won’t be able to drive you to school then, but Susie’s mother will come to our house to pick you up at your regular time.” Or, “When I have the medicine that will remove my cancer cells, my hair will fall out and you will see me without any hair. Sometimes I will wear a hat or a wig to keep me warm and comfortable. My hair will grow back.”
Ages 7 to 12 years
School-aged children will understand more about the causes and effects of a serious illness, but you should still keep you explanations simple. They may hesitate to bring up a concern or a fear they have because they are afraid of burdening the parent who is facing cancer. It is good to ask them once a week how things are going and how they are feeling. By encouraging them to verbalize their concerns, you are teaching them how to handle crisis in a positive way, and you will also have a sense of how your child is coping.
Be sure to watch for changes in school performance, as well as eating and sleeping patterns. Any changes may be an indicator that your child is worried and unable to verbalize his or her feelings.
Ages 12 and older
Children at this age can understand most aspects of breast cancer causes and treatments. You should spend time listening to their concerns and trying to help them get the best information to answer their questions. Older teenagers may want to know detailed information about breast cancer and may want to do their own research about the illness. Others may want to rely only on what you tell them.
Each child may respond differently to their parent’s illness. Some may get angry and distant. Others may feel insecure and scared. If they are having a hard time talking to you, encourage them to talk with other members of the family, or to a teacher or friend.
Just like you, children will have to react to the wide-range of emotions that occur when cancer invades a family. Fear, sadness, insecurity, anger, and curiosity are just some of the feelings they will have. Keep talking to and with them. Try to plan activities for the whole family on a regular basis. Most importantly, try to give them extra love and attention—it will benefit everyone.