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Johns Hopkins Health - How to Tell the Kids That You Have Cancer

Fall 2012
Issue No. 18

How to Tell the Kids That You Have Cancer

Date: October 24, 2012


When Lillie Shockney, R.N., administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Clinical Breast and Cancer Survivorship Programs, was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, one of her first concerns was breaking the news to her 12-year-old daughter, Laura. She knew the timing was critical.

“I waited until I had met with the surgical oncologist to have a confirmed treatment plan before I told her,” Shockney says. Children, especially girls with relatives who have had the disease, may worry about getting breast cancer themselves, so they need reassurance that research and treatments are improving all the time and that Mom is doing all she can to get well again.

Shockney cautions against waiting too long or keeping young children out of the loop altogether. “We assume because a child is 3 or 4 that they don’t need to know anything,” Shockney says. “But they’ll feel the stress around them. Establish trust with your children.”

Tell your little ones that you have a “boo-boo” and that the doctors are fixing it. Warn them that your hair is going to fall out but will grow back again, Shockney adds, and maybe even let them help throw a “coming out” party for your hair where friends and family will bring you hats and scarves.

Keep children’s schedules as consistent as possible, Shockney says. Maintain their normal extracurricular activities and recreation time with friends. Be mindful about burdening them with too many adult responsibilities such as fixing dinner, doing laundry and running family errands. “Don’t take away their childhood,” she says.

Watch a video of Lillie Shockney, R.N., discussing the process of telling your family about your breast cancer and recalling her own experience talking to her daughter about the diagnosis and treatment. Go to