How Breast Cancer Impacts Children and Families


Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers that impact thousands of lives every year across the nation. While many believe only women can get breast cancer, that’s not the case. Since everyone has breast tissue men can get breast cancer as well, but it’s very rare. It’s estimated that roughly 23 percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients are between the ages of 21 to 55-years-old. That means a significant amount of those patients may have small children. In fact, a 2010 study estimated that 2.85 million children under 18-years-old in the U.S. lived with a parent who was diagnosed with cancer.

A cancer diagnosis can impact the entire family. Multiple studies show that children in particular have a higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems after a cancer diagnosis. Disrupted daily routines and schedules, the shifting of household roles, financial stress and the physical and emotional availability of either parent all contribute to emotional and behavioral challenges for children and youth.

A parental cancer diagnosis can disrupt the daily routine or schedule because of frequent clinic visits, hospital stays and the home turning into a place of care. If a parent is no longer able to interact with their young children on the regular it can begin to take a toll on their emotional health. For example, the ill parent can no longer drive them to school or to extracurricular activities, or even pack a school lunch.

Children of parents with cancer frequently change roles within their family, absorbing more responsibility while one parent cares for the ill parent. Often times this can lead to a decrease in social activity and loss of play time with peer groups. In school, truancy rates can be impacted as older children may need to care for younger siblings or pick up extra work shifts to help combat the financial burden cancer puts on a family.

Young children will benefit from age-appropriate help in identifying the impact of a cancer diagnosis, talking through their emotions and thoughts, and finding situational positives that can improve resilience. If available, a child psychologist can help because they are specifically trained to pick up on stress and behaviors that can go unnoticed by other adults. 

Starting the conversation

Young children benefit from honesty and reassurance when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. Here are some helpful tips on how to talk with young children about a cancer diagnosis.

·         Plan in advance: Decide what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Involve a partner or another adult the children trust if you think their presence will help.

·         Use direct, simple language to define what cancer is, where it’s at in your body and what kind of treatment you’ll receive: Do not avoid using the word “cancer”. Even very young children can understand simple explanations of what cells are and how they sometimes don’t “follow the rules” and grow as they should. A doll or stuffed animal could be a helpful visual aid. 

·         Tell children how cancer treatment will affect the body: Children need to be prepared for the physical side effects of treatment. For example, losing a breast, hair loss after chemotherapy or feeling sick a lot. You might explain that medicines for cancer are powerful and that side effects show that the medicines are working inside your body. Always let children know when you will need to be away from home, in the hospital or at the doctor’s office.

·         Reassure their needs will be met: Children benefit from consistent routines and reassurance during times of crisis. Let children know that you may not always be available to take them to school and special activities, play with them or prepare their meals. Make sure they know about the trusted friends, family or health care providers who will be helping out.

·         Invite children to ask questions and learn more: Make sure children understand that you will answer any questions they may have. It’s important they know that none of this is their fault or yours.

Let teachers, coaches, school counselors and other caregivers know what’s going on: Big changes at home can bleed into changes in a child’s behavior and other environments. Trusted adults can help you know how your child is coping as well as serve as additional care and support.