Talking to children about advanced breast cancer

Breast cancer

Talking to children

Sharing your diagnosis with children

Sharing your diagnosis with children

As an adult it can be difficult to understand and accept a diagnosis of advanced cancer and the very thought of explaining this to children can be truly challenging. 

Your first reaction might be to try and protect them by hiding the diagnosis, but children are very perceptive and generally pick up on when something is wrong or unusual in the home. They may feel excluded and start imagining all sorts of other scenarios or jump to conclusions. 

Sharing information on your diagnosis and treatment is a big step and should be planned and considered. Choose together as parents how much information will be shared and when. This reduces the risk of the child receiving conflicting information, which can cause uncertainty and lack of reassurance.

“There’s just so much guilt as a mum that you’re putting your kids and husband through this, even though I didn’t choose it and I know it wasn’t my fault.”
Greta Thomas
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ - Ribbon

Be open and honest

Children may differ a lot in what they understand at a particular age. Young children need clear and simple explanations. Older siblings may appreciate being told separately to any younger children as they will require more explanation and will often have lots of questions.

Being open and honest with your children will help reassure them they can be open and honest with you. It is ok to tell them that you don’t know the answers to all of their questions.

For some children, the most important thing for them is understanding how the cancer will affect their “normal” family life. They may need to be prepared for any changes to their usual routine such as who will pick them up from school or take them to sports practices.

When is the right time?

There is lots of discussion about whether there is a right time to tell your children about your diagnosis. The conclusion is there really is no right or wrong time.

A good time might be before any obvious changes take place. This can include telling them you will be having a special type of treatment that will cause you to lose your hair so that they have time to process and prepare for it. Reassure them this is okay and doesn’t hurt.

Some people who cut their hair short or shave their head before chemotherapy starts choose to involve their children in this process so the end result is not as daunting for them.

“I discussed it with my husband but we didn’t know when to tell our two kids, we didn’t want to upset them or stress them, but there is no right time, so we did tell them early on, so they weren’t wondering.”
Greta Thomas
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ - Ribbon

Involve wider whānau

Some families choose to involve wider whānau for support at this time. Close friends, a church group or extended family may provide support for your child if they do not want to upset you with their concerns.

Ask them if there is someone else that they would like to talk to at any time for this support. Informing your child’s teacher will give them extra insight into the reason why your child might be upset or even withdrawn at school. They can provide additional support in a safe environment and some schools can offer counselling or pastoral care.

“I had just lost one of my best friends to cancer, so our kids knew what a stage 4 cancer journey might look like. As soon as information came to us, we shared it. We started a whānau group chat for cancer updates, but it became something better – sharing what we’re up to.”
Chanda Warren


There are numerous resources available to help you talk to your children and to help support them. These include:

BCFNZ Support

Speak to our BCFNZ nurses about counselling for you and/or your children. They can help connect you to the best services and resources across the country. This includes the Medikidz book, which explains advanced breast cancer through a comic book adventure, and can also be ordered free online here, as well as Cancer Council Australia's Talking to Kids About Cancer, a comprehensive step by step guide that can be downloaded for free.

Other resources that can be accessed anywhere in NZ:

  • Sweet Louise
  • Cancer in the Family - A Cancer Society NZ booklet about talking to your children about cancer.
  • Skylight - an organisation that supports children and young people to build resilience during times of trauma, grief and loss.
  • Kenzie’s Gift - Supports the mental health of young people and families affected by serious illness or bereavement.
  • Kidsline - Children can phone and speak to a specially trained volunteer 24/7 on 0800 54 37 54
  • What’s Up - 0800 What’s Up is run by Barnardos NZ. It’s a free, nationally available counselling helpline and webchat service for children and teenagers
  • Youthline - Email, webchat at
    Call on 0800 376 633 or free text 234