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Fighting Breast Cancer, Building Bonds: One Family's Story

Telling the Children You Have Cancer

Honesty is still the best policy when talking with tweens and teens about breast cancer. Don't try to protect them by withholding information, because they'll sense it and fear the worst. You can be candid—and give them the reassurance they need—by keeping the following in mind.

—Break the news in a quiet setting (no food, TV or cell phones). Plan what you're going to say and how you'll describe your illness and prognosis. Be realistic but positive. Having a calm demeanor will help your kids feel less frightened.

—Before you begin chemotherapy or radiation, explain how they will affect you physically and emotionally. Explain that nausea, weakness and hair loss are normal side effects.

—Schedule weekly family powwows throughout the duration of your treatment (chemo can last several months to a year). This will give your kids a chance to ask questions and share feelings, which they may be reluctant to do otherwise.

—Inform them that you may not bounce back quickly even after your treatments are finished. Be up-front about any ongoing fatigue, as well as the possibility of recurrence. An optimistic outlook will give you and your family strength, whatever the future holds.

Dealing with a Diagnosis

When a woman has breast cancer, the entire family is affected. Nearly half of newly diagnosed patients suffer from emotional distress or depression, according to a study at Dartmouth Medical School, and recent research has found that their male partners are 40% more likely to be hospitalized for mood disorders like anxiety. Children are vulnerable too—29% show symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Some resources that can help:

For Patients: The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website (nbcam.org) has information about the disease and a range of patient services. Also worth bookmarking are community.nationalbreastcancer.org (the National Breast Cancer Foundation site) and BreastCancer.org, one of the most visited breast cancer message boards. YourShoes (800-221-2141) is a 24/7 emotional support hotline where all calls are answered by a breast cancer survivor.

For Husbands: Men Against Breast Cancer (menagainstbreastcancer.org) is the only nonprofit organization focused on significant others, offering educational workshops, brochures and links to other support groups. Spouses can also visit HealthCentral.com to connect with partners of breast cancer patients across the country.

For Teens: Adolescents can call 800-4-CANCER to request When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens, or they can download it from Cancer.gov, the National Cancer Institute's website. In addition to providing facts about the disease and treatment, this booklet helps teens identify their feelings and learn how to cope with them.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.