Breast cancer in the family - children’s perceptions of their mother’s cancer and its initial treatment: qualitative study.

The Ashley Charitable Trust was introduced to Gillian Forrest – a Senior Research Fellow in the Section for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Park Hospital for Children and Alan Stein - Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The Ashley Charitable Trust provided funding for Gillian and her colleagues to undertake a study to explore the accounts of mothers with breast cancer and their children to identify children’s awareness and understanding of their parent’s cancer, their reactions to being told about the diagnosis and the different types of treatment, what information they would have liked to have been given and appear to need. To also contrast the children’s and mother’s accounts to highlight area where their perspectives differ.

Mothers were sourced to take part through the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Jane Ashley Unit at the Churchill Hospital.

Participants included 37 mothers with early breast cancer and 31 of their children aged between 6 and 18 years. Approval for the research project was given by the Ethics Committee, Oxford University and Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Trust.

Study results

There was an existing awareness of cancer as a life-threatening illness even amongst most of the children interviewed. Children described specific aspects of their mother’s treatment as especially stressful (seeing her immediately post-operatively, chemotherapy and hair loss). Children suspected something was wrong even before they were told of the diagnosis. Parents sometimes misunderstood their children’s reactions, and underestimated the emotional impact or did not recognise the children’s need for more preparation and age-appropriate information about the illness and treatment.


Study conclusion

As part of their care, parents newly diagnosed with life threatening illness need to be supported to think about how they will talk to their children. GPs and hospital specialists, as well as nurses, are well placed to be able to help with these issues, and if necessary to be involved in discussions with the children.

The provision of appropriate information, including recommended websites, should be part of this care. More information specifically designed for young children is needed.

Achievements and outcome

  • 2006 – Article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)
  • 2008 – The Ashley Charitable Trust was delighted to have been involved with Breast Cancer Care’s book 'Mummy’s Lump' - published in May 2008

The conclusion of the study was to produce a booklet to be used by those affected by breast cancer – and consequently we were pleased that Breast Cancer Care offered to produce the book to explain to young children about early breast cancer and its treatment. Breast Cancer Care has been and continue to be pivotal in ensuring that the publication reaches those that need it.

Please contact The Ashley Charitable Trust if you would like to request a copy of the full Study.