‘Your Children Are Unbelievably Strong and Loving. They Will Stand By You’

Renu was reluctant to tell her kids about her breast cancer diagnosis. But when she did, not only did both of them take the news well, they’ve provided her with priceless comfort and support.

Talking to Kids About Mom's Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Renu was reluctant to tell her two children she had breast cancer. When she did, she found it was the right thing for them — and for her.

Renuka (Renu) Sathe’s first reaction when she learned she had stage 1 breast cancer in late 2022 was concern for her two children. How could she share such scary news with 18-year-old Dhruv, who was immersed in college applications, and Anahita, who was only 8? Initially, Renu didn’t want to tell the kids at all. “I felt they would be broken or terrified, or they wouldn’t know how to process this,” she says.

Renu’s husband, Nikhil, was of a different mind — he felt the kids needed to know — so they compromised, agreeing not to say anything to the children until they had more information about Renu’s prognosis and treatment plan.

Once they’d had time to read up on Renu’s type and stage of breast cancer and get details from her doctors about what to expect from the chemotherapy she would be receiving, the Sathes were ready to talk to the kids. Because of the significant age difference between their son and daughter, Renu and Nikhil decided to tell them separately, starting with Dhruv. When they asked to speak to him in his room, Dhruv cracked a few jokes (Was he in trouble? Was his mom expecting?) and then asked his parents if they had good news or bad. Renu was straight with her answer. “It’s neither or both, however you want to choose,” she said. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

She went on to explain it had been caught early and that she’d be having chemotherapy to treat it. To discourage him from getting false information about breast cancer online, she suggested he stick to the American Cancer Society website and invited him to come along to doctor’s appointments if he wanted.

Dhruv remembers his mom and dad stressing that he could come to them with any questions he might have, which he found reassuring. “That definitely made a big impact, just being able to go to them and ask them anything about this,” Dhruv says.

With Anahita, Renu and Nikhil weren’t as straightforward. In fact, they didn’t even use the word “cancer,” telling her only that her mom was going to have some treatment, without getting into why. They explained the treatment might make it hard for Renu to fight off a cold or COVID-19 infection and asked her to wear a mask at school.

But the effort to protect Anahita from scary news backfired. It wasn’t long before the precocious little girl picked up on signs around the house: a binder labeled “Cancer Center” and a special shampoo for people having chemo and radiation.

Finally, when Renu walked out the door for her first treatment, carrying a bag with “Cancer” written on it, Anahita let her sleuthing be known. She ran after her parents and asked why her dad was taking her mom somewhere she might catch cancer. Renu realized then that she needed to be honest with her daughter, even if she wasn’t as prepared to talk to Anahita as she had been with Dhruv.

“We just jumped straight into the fact that we have a plan of action — not as detailed as I did with my son,” Renu says. She and Nikhil told Anahita how long her mom’s treatment would last and that she would be fine by the end of it. “She had a lot of questions back and forth, but she took it beautifully. And I’m blown away,” says Renu.

“It was really good they told me, because I don’t like it when people hide stuff from me. And also, I wanted to make sure I could help and somehow be there for them if they need me,” says Anahita.

In retrospect, Renu realizes trying to keep a cancer diagnosis secret within a family creates an unnecessary burden. “You can’t be yourself with them,” she says, adding sage advice for anyone struggling with how to talk about cancer to a child: “Your children are unbelievably strong and loving. They will stand by you, and you just have to find the right way to talk based on their ages.”

How to Talk to Children About Cancer

If you have children and receive a cancer diagnosis, it’s best to be straight with them about it. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, but without age-appropriate information, they’re likely to be more scared than they need to be or think they’re somehow to blame.

Before you talk to your child, take into account their age but, just as important, how mature they are and how well they tend to cope when something is new, scary, or hard to understand.

Young children (under 6): Small kids probably won’t understand what cancer is, but they will notice if you’re suddenly tired all the time or you lose your hair when you start treatment. You can tell them you have a sickness called cancer, but stress that they didn’t cause you to be sick. Spend as much time with them as you have energy for, because young kids are especially fearful of being separated from their parents.

School-age kids (6–12): Kids in this age range will benefit from clear, simple explanations of what cancer is. Explain how their daily routine is likely to change during your treatment. You may want to give them small bits of information at a time, to allow them to digest and react to it. If they ask questions, answer them simply, without going into more detail than is necessary.

Teenagers (13 and older): Teens will probably want to know more about your diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment side effects, and they’ll likely be tempted to go online to learn more than you tell them. Try to prevent them from pulling up false information by referring them to reputable sources, such as the American Cancer Society. Make it clear that you’re there to answer any and all questions they may have, but also give them permission to talk to another adult, such as a school counselor, if you sense that would be helpful.

Once your child knows what’s going on, keep an eye on them. If they start doing poorly in school, begin acting out, or seem anxious, depressed, or withdrawn, talk to their pediatrician, their school counselor, or a member of your cancer care team for guidance. Most important, remind your child every day that they are cared for and that you love them.