Explaining cancer to a toddler

Photo courtesy of Michelle Quance Photography

Photo courtesy of Michelle Quance

There are things as a mother that you expect you are going to talk to your children about during certain stages of their life. You know those talks when your mom sits you down on the couch to “talk” and the conversation could go one of  two ways; super awkward or quick and painless. I guess we are just entering the phases of sitting down to have talks although Princess Peach and I talk about anything and everything all the time. At 3, I have talked to my daughter about using her manners, being nice to other kids, and about the importance of eating healthy foods. I expected out next “big” talk would be before starting Junior Kindergarten in September. Sadly, my big talk came a few weeks ago when I had to tell my smart 3.5 year old daughter that mommy has a boo-boo in her breast called, cancer.

From the moment my ultrasound went awry to getting diagnosed with breast cancer at 33 years old, I was worried about my kids.  That’s what being a mother is all about right? Living for your kids and worrying about anything and everything related to them.

Immediately after my diagnosis the social worker came into the room I had been sitting in waiting to find out my results for hours. I was worried about what to tell Princess Peach.  How on earth do you tell a 3.5 year old that her mom is sick, is going to lose her hair, and have surgery to remove her breasts? She told me to use the word cancer. She told me to tell her that she did nothing to cause this, that her behaving good or bad cannot make mommy better and that she cannot “catch” cancer. I believe in using books as tools to help make sense of difficult situations for children so off I went to the hospitals lending library to see what resources they had for me. I found a book that was appropriate for her and shared the appropriate amount of information for a child her age.

With my chemo date approaching my husband and I needed to find a time to sit down and explain to her what was happening. I was so freaked out and worried about talking to her about what was going to happen. So one evening, two days before my first chemo treatment, after her brother went to sleep, we cuddled together on the couch. I looked at her and said “mommy has a boo-boo in her boob called cancer”. Those words were the hardest and most terrifying words I have ever had to say to my child. What happened next was amazing and reminded me that children are smarter beyond their years. “Are they going to cut the boo-boo out of your boob?” she asked. I was speechless. It was as if she knew the right words to say. I then resorted to the book to share the rest of the information. It was perfect.  As perfect as telling your child you have cancer can be. She then wrapped her arms around me and told me she loved me. It was as if she knew exactly what to do in that moment.

There are so many moments that have defined me as a mom, but that was one moment that will be etched in my mind and heart forever.


  1. Parent Club says:

    I can’t even imagine that conversation – but it sounds like you approached it thoughtfully – and that your toddler “got it”. Sending you hugs and healing vibes!

  2. Yvette says:

    Wow…brought me to tears. You are such a strong person and mommy. xoxo

  3. Alex says:

    Renee, you’re so amazing, you know? Your kids are so lucky to have you. I hope this whole process goes smoothly for you. <3

    • mscmommylife says:

      Thanks Alex! I’m so lucky to have them too!!! And I don’t think I’m amazing. Just doing what I have to do 🙂

  4. Yashy Murphy (@YashYanthi) says:

    Thinking of you guys daily and you’re so right,kids sometimes know just the right thing to say. Glad there’s resources to help young families embrace the new changes and have the right discussions.

  5. loren416 says:

    Renee, I’m very proud of you for talking to Princess Peach openly. It is 100% the correct thing to do. I am the child of a chronically ill parent. Different era and illness, but it was kept a secret, one that I knew from the age of 3. I told my mom I knew what I knew when I was in my 20’s, and how it it effected me. How I wish we had candour in our home.

  6. Danielle says:

    She Is so smart and you guys are doing an amazing job. You will all get through this even stronger than you are now.

  7. MultiTestingMom says:

    What a challenging conversation to have! You were so brave and your daughter is one smart cookie! Just proves that kids sometimes just need to be told the way it is.

  8. Jaime says:

    It brings tears to my eyes as I read this, but you are so strong. I’m thinking of you.

  9. mom2michael says:

    She is an amazing little girl. And you are an awesome Mom.
    Keeping you in my prayers my friend! xo

  10. Julia says:

    Oh Renee, I can’t Even imagine. Hugs to you.

  11. Nadia says:

    It’s in these moments that you feel you have to show strength for your kids when you realize that they give you strength. May you both continue to be strong, I feel proud to call you my friend Renee.

  12. What a difficult topic to address with such a young child. My heart goes out to you. Stay strong in your fight. Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.

  13. MB says:

    I’m so sorry you have to go through this. Both of my parents had cancer when I was a child, and I don’t recall if they explained it to me. If they did, I must not remember. I think you did an excellent job of explaining it to your daughter.

    I wish you lots of good vibes in recovering. And I have to say that my mom said that just having kids to come home to helped her recovery immensely and gave her an incentive to get well. She had her first bout at 41 with breast cancer and then again at 48 — she’s now 78 and doing well with the occasional “old age” pains. Keep up the good fight!

  14. You handled that perfectly! You are such a strong woman! Keep fighting! You are always in my thoughts and prayers!

  15. Shalama Jackson says:

    Sorry you had to have the conversation, but proud you had the courage to do so.

  16. Lindsay says:

    You are one strong mama. My thoughts and prayers will be with you on this journey! And with your little ones.

  17. renee, my heart is hurting that you had to have this convo with your sweet girl. this post brought tears to my eyes as i read it, but what a special little girl you have! praying for you as you go through this rough patch in your life, and praying for your family as well!

  18. Shawn says:

    Our thoughts are w you, Sammy and the kids. You’re a strong woman Rene… Takacs family xo

  19. chancesmommy says:

    Hugs, Renee! Admittedly, I weep whenever I read your posts. My heart hurts that you have to have this convo with your little one. At the same time, you are so strong and your perspective and attitude make you a cancer butt kicker!!! Here for you always, my friend!

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