Breast cancer in young families: a qualitative interview study of fathers and their role and communication with their children following the diagnosis of maternal breast cancer

Following the invaluable research gained from Breast cancer in the family - children’s perceptions of their mother’s cancer and its initial treatment: qualitative study, by 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 father-child communication following the diagnosis of maternal breast cancer, to examine disparities in their understanding of the impact of the illness, and identify gaps in their need for support and information.

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

Participants included 26 fathers whose partners had early breast cancer and 31 of their children aged between 6 and 18 years.

Study results

Fathers described graphically their reaction to news of their partner’s breast cancer and their attempts to provide support for their partners and maintain normal family life for their children. Fathers were keen to reassure and protect children but often said they lacked sufficient information about breast cancer – especially side effects of treatments. Fathers sometimes did not recognise the extent of their children’s distress and some interpreted their children’s reaction as ‘bad behaviour’ or ‘rudeness’. Children were often acutely aware of the father’s emotional state, and expressed a wish to protect him. Some fathers would have liked an opportunity to talk to a clinician directly about the children but did not want to claim clinical time for themselves or their children.


Study conclusion

The study suggests that clinicians could improve their care of breast cancer patients by being more family-centred. Fathers routinely need more information and preparation about the likely impact of illness and its treatment on the mother, and how children of different ages may react to the emotional strain. Clinicians need to be prepared to offer to talk to teenagers.

Achievements and outcome

  • 2008 – Paper published by Psycho-Oncology, a mainstream and highly regarded publication with joint UK/US editors.

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