During Treatment

Parenting during breast cancer

Posted by Sara Liyanage on 04 October 2017

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, coming in joint 1st on my ‘Breast Cancer Shit List’ was the worry about:

1. Telling my children (9 year old and 11 year old) that I had breast cancer; and
2. How they would deal with it whilst I went through treatment.

(And let’s not even go to the “what will happen to them if I don’t get through this?” worry.)

However, as with many aspects of a breast cancer journey, the worry can be worse than the reality.”

Here are some things to think about when it comes to parenting whilst going through breast cancer:

Telling the children

1. How you tell your children will depend on their age.

2. Honesty is a good policy.

3. There are a lot of picture books which help you to explain the situation to younger children. You may be able to borrow some books from a local Macmillan centre, a local hospice, a cancer centre at your hospital or your local library. I have popped a list of books (some with reviews) at the end of this page.

4. Remember, you know your children best so use your judgment on how, when and what to tell them.

5. Remember that if you don’t tell your children, or don’t want them to know about any aspect of your diagnosis/treatment, then be careful with whom you tell and what you tell them. It would be so easy for a friend to say something to her husband and her children to overhear. And what if that child was a friend of your child? They could easily say something to them. Just be careful.

How to help your children

Remembering that all children are different:

1. Try to keep life and routines as normal as possible given the situation.

2. Tell school about your diagnosis.

3. Ask friends and school mums for help taking kids to and from school, clubs etc

4. Ask friends and school mums to have the children over at weekends, schools holidays and after school when you need a break.

5. Take care of yourself – if you don’t look after yourself then your recovery will be slow and it will ultimately impact on the kids more.

6. Plan some nice family things to do at the end of treatment so you all have something to look forward to together.

7. Respect your children’s feelings about your diagnosis and treatment. Sara notes that her son was adamant that none of his friends should know I had cancer and he also asked her not to come to school unless she was wearing her wig because a scarf or hat made her look cancer-y and he was uncomfortable with that. In the end, he eventually told his friends in his own time.

8. Expect changes in their behaviour. Sara notes that her nine year old refused to go in her bed every night for the duration of her chemo and we had regular tantrums. 

9. Think of some ways to help younger children deal with the upheavals that treatment can bring. Some lovely ideas are:

a. For those low immunity days when your child is poorly and you have to keep clear, give them a teddy which is Mummy’s little helper who gives out cuddles when mummy can’t.

b. Have a “hug jar”: every time your child needs a hug but you can’t give one (because you are either at hospital or having to keep a distance due to immunity issues) your child pops a token in the jar. Then when you are around for hugs, he/she can count them up and call in the hugs.

Helpful resources

Breast Cancer Now  guide to telling your children which includes advice for telling your child’s school

Fruitfly Collective resources for parents with cancer. This organisation is worth a particular shout out because they provide so much advice for parents with cancer. Some of their resources are free and some you need to pay for. We thoroughly recommend looking at their YouTube channel (free resource) where you will find some really helpful bitesize talks about parenting with cancer. Have a browse around their site – you’ll find loads of videos and book/website recommendations to help you. The Fruitfly team have shared their top tips with us in this guest article.

The Little C Club – flashcards for children aged 2 years to 10 years to help them understand their parent’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Macmillan – advice for talking to children and teenagers about your cancer and their downloadable pdf Macmillan guide . This guide covers how to tell your children that you have cancer and then how to help your children throughout your breast cancer treatment.

National Cancer Institute guide for teenagers called “When your parent has cancer: a guide for teens”

Navigate – A Breast CNS Team in a large NHS Trust sharing support and resources for all parents via instagram

Obsorne Trust provides children aged 16 years and under whose parent/s have cancer access to recreational activities during a parent/s treatment by funding up to 3 activities such as a cinema trip, play centre visit or a meal out. Activities are supervised by an adult family member or friend. The aim is to offer the parent/s some rest and the children some time away from all that cancer entails.

UCHL –  A short video from UCHL (on YouTube)

Mummy’s Star – a charity providing cancer support in or around pregnancy. Pete Wallroth, the founder of Mummy’s Star, has shared his story with us in this guest article.

Books for younger children

B is for Breast Cancer (Meet Lucy and Jack)  Lucy and Jack have a Mum who has been diagnosed with primary breast cancer and needs to have chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and hormone therapy. This book explores a little of the impact on the lives of the family, in a way designed to be helpful and non-threatening to children who may share a similar experience.

Live Better With Cancer stock a super selection of books aimed at telling younger children about Mummy’s cancer. They have done a review of their 10 favourite books (click here to read that). We definitely recommend you read this review then grab one or two books (remember you may be able to borrow them from your local support centre or library).

The Monster Series by Donia Youssef. Following her own breast cancer diagnosis, Donia found very little literature on how to explain what was happening to her two young daughters. So she wrote her own book – The Monster In Mummy. She’s followed this up with some more Monster books to help families where someone has cancer. Proceeds go to cancer charities and can be purchased via Donia’s website: The Monster in Mummy and The Monster in Wonderland.

Mighty & Bright, a US based support website with books aimed at helping children through challenging life experiences including the cancer of a parent (they ship to the UK).

Breast Cancer Now book called “Mummy’s Lump” aimed at talking to younger children about your breast cancer.

Butterfly Boy Oliver’s mummy is unwell. He hopes that if he looks after her, she will get strong enough to fly him in the air again, just like she used to. When Oliver finds a tiny, weak caterpillar, he knows just what to do. As he looks after the caterpillar it begins to change and Oliver learns that it is going to turn into a beautiful butterfly.

Personal stories on the topic of parenting with cancer

I was diagnosed during pregnancy

I was parenting a young baby during breast cancer

I was diagnosed whilst breast feeding

Parenting a 17 month old and a four year old during cancer

Telling my 2 year old about cancer

Why I didn’t tell my nine year old I had cancer

The mum guilt of having cancer

Motherhood during four cancer diagnoses

Parenting a teen while going through cancer treatment

Telling my 10 year olds and 14 year olds I had cancer

Reviewed August 2021

The information and content provided on this page is intended for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.

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Claire diagnosed in 2016
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