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According to a study conducted in England, children of women with breast cancer often sensed that something was wrong before being told, and had reactions to cancer that were sometimes misunderstood by their parents. These results were published in the British Medical Journal.

Each year, breast cancer is diagnosed in over 200,000 women in the U.S. alone.

When the diagnosis occurs in a woman with small children, an important concern for the family is how to communicate with the children about cancer.

To evaluate children’s perceptions of cancer and their desire for information, researchers in England conducted interviews with 37 mothers with early breast cancer and 31 of their children. The women had been diagnosed with stage I to stage IIIa breast cancer. The children were between the ages of six and 18 years.

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  • Children often suspected that something was wrong before being told.
  • All children except for two of the youngest had heard of cancer before their mother’s diagnosis.
  • Many children knew that cancer was a life-threatening condition.
  • Common feelings, regardless of the child’s age, included emotional upset, shock, fear, and anxiety. Children didn’t always share these feelings with their mother, leading some mothers to feel that their children weren’t concerned about their illness.
  • Many children found the side effects chemotherapy the most disturbing aspect of their mother’s treatment.
  • The desire for more information about cancer varied by the child’s age. Children between the ages of six and 10 commonly reported that they had received sufficient information about cancer. Older children more often reported that they’d been given insufficient information.
  • In spite of feeling that they’d received sufficient information, younger children tended to be more frightened than older children by their mother’s hospital experience and hair loss. The researchers suggest that additional information and preparation might help these children.

The researchers conclude, “Parents facing the challenge of coping with cancer and its treatment also face the challenge of meeting their children’s needs. This is a very difficult time for families, and they may need considerable help in dealing with communication within the family and determining how support could be provided for their children as well as themselves.”

Reference: Forrest G, Plumb C, Ziebland S et al. Breast Cancer in the Family – Children’s Perceptions of Their Mother’s Cancer and Its Initial Treatment: Qualitative Study. British Medical Journal. Published Online April 13, 2006.

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