Senior mother talking with family
Breast Cancer
Cancer Center

Telling Your Kids and Grandkids about Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Carol saw her doctor about a lump in her breast in early December. By the time the mammogram and biopsy were done, she didn’t want to ruin her adult daughter’s birthday or Christmas. Yes, she had breast cancer, but it wasn’t life threatening. So she sat on the news for more than a month.,

In Carol’s mind, she was protecting her five grown children and many grandchildren. But for her youngest daughter Sarah, whom she’s closest to, it still hurts to remember a decade later. “I just wish she’d told me. I think about her being alone with worry and fear for so long. I know she had my dad, but it is a different kind of relationship. It wasn’t fair for her to decide we couldn’t handle it.”

Every family and every breast cancer diagnosis is different. Deciding when to talk about your medical situation and how much to share is a tricky balancing act, made all the more complicated with a lifetime of emotions and relationships behind it. According to the American Cancer Society, only you can decide when to tell your family. And once you decide to do so, try to keep yourself at the center of your talk: Abhinav Chandra, Medical Director for the Yuma Regional Medical Center Cancer Center, says to focus on your diagnosis without being overly careful on the effect your words might have on your listener. Don’t worry too much, as women are inclined to do, about taking care of others.

Here are some strategies to help you:

Do consider the age of your children or grandchildren and tailor your information accordingly. A 10-year-old needs something different from even a 15-year-old. The same goes for how involved your children are in your health generally. If you have had other health concerns already or have had hospital stays, your 30-year-old son might be in the loop on your doctor visits – as would your significant other. So take a look at the picture of your family before sharing big health news.

Don’t rush. There’s adrenaline in a crisis moment that pushes us to do something, anything. That can lead to panic and chaos before all the information is available. If you need to tell your daughter when you find a lump in your breast, when your doctor tells you you’ll need further testing, or any other step on the way, that’s fine. That’s what our loved ones are for. But calling everyone you know with every shred of news is going to sap your strength.

Do write down your talking points. Consider the things you want to make sure to cover, in person or on the phone. These might be more detailed from person to person but the big stuff will stay the same. Typically, that means your story—how you found out, what your stage is, how you are proceeding with treatment, what the next step is, the prognosis. Stick to facts and save the emotions for the end, if you can.

Do be patient. Is breast cancer a lot more complicated than a few notecards of highlights? Definitely. Are you going to become sick of talking about it? Probably. If you have a big family, consider combining some of these conversations. Asking questions is one way people show love and concern when they don’t know what else to do. However long you’ve been living with your diagnosis, remember this is all new for them.

Don’t share anything you aren’t comfortable with. No matter who does the asking, this is your body. You are entitled to privacy and respect. Cancer doesn’t change that. You can’t control what is happening to you, but you can set boundaries with your family.

Do keep family updated. Finding out you have breast cancer is one thing but not the last thing. A group email can be a simple way to spread information if you don’t like multiple phone calls every time something changes. If that feels impersonal, figure out what works for you. No matter what method you decide, try to keep your loved ones in the loop with news—good or bad.