Telling your children you have cancer

It’s one of the conversations you never want to have with your children. Imparting the news that a parent isn’t 100% well is hard. (Even harder than the chat I had yesterday with one of DD’s friends who asked me, while I was changing DS’s nappy, ‘why do boys have willies and what are they made of?’)

Every year in the UK, around a third of those diagnosed with breast cancer have school age children living at home. When I was diagnosed on October 13 (who on earth books a mammogram for the 13th of the month? It was never going to be good news!) one of the first things the lovely breast care nurses talked to us about was breaking the news to the children. The two key things they emphasised was that however we did it, we had to be honest, while talking at their level.

Children know stuff is going on even when they don’t understand exactly what it is, and the worst thing is pretending everything is OK if it isn’t, because their little imaginations kick in and conjur up all sorts of horrors that are probably worse than the truth. Since they are very firmly at the centre of the universe as far as they are concerned, it’s also important that they know they haven’t done anything wrong. No darling, mummy hasn’t got a lump because you won’t get yourself dressed in the morning/refuse to eat peas/broke that glass.

The wonderful people at Breast Cancer Care have recognised how important it is to be open with your children about the condition. There is an excellent section on their website about talking to children, plus a pdf. They have also produced a story book to read to under-sixes to explain what’s going on. It’s called Mummy’s Lump, and when DH and I were given a hard copy, we both cried. It just seemed like the hardest thing to handle. And I really didn’t want to use the c-word, or to say chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, as I just felt they were irrelevant labels. I also didn’t want to go into the whole wig thing in case I did manage to hold onto my hair, or talk about operations, especially since I’m having my op at the end of the treatment rather than before, as in the book. Perhaps we’ll read it together at some point as we go through the process, if it seems more pertinent, but at the moment it’s in my big pink Cancer File.

DS is only two and doesn’t really mind where I am or understand what’s going on, as long as I show up for a cuddle eventually and he’s got his sister nearby. DD, however, is a bright, sensitive four year old who very definitely did get that something was wrong, and we were both anxious about telling her in the right way at the right time. After I was diagnosed, there were a lot more grandparents, rellies and friends around than usual, and not just at the weekends. And there were tearful faces, long grown-up conversations and lots of phonecalls, and mummy kept disappearing (for the endless scans). Her behaviour did start to change – she was ‘playing up’, more stubborn and tearful than usual, and more clingy. So one breakfast time a couple of weeks after I was diagnosed, when she was getting upset that I wouldn’t be picking her up from school, I sat her on my lap and told her.

I was very matter-of-fact. I said something like: ‘Mummy’s got a lump in her booby. It doesn’t hurt, but it shouldn’t be there, and the doctors need to make it go away. I’ve been having lots of checks at the hospital, and every few weeks I’m going to have a whole day at the hospital to have some special strong medicine. It might make me feel very tired. I’m absolutely fine, and if I’m not here to drop you off or pick you up, daddy will be, and if he’s with me, then one or your grandmas will be looking after you, and we will always tell you who will be dropping you off and picking you up. I’m fine, and I love you, and you haven’t done anything wrong.’ She perked up considerably, straight away, and has been fine since, mostly.

I keep being very straightforward about the logistics where they affect her, so she knows what’s going on. We’re not saying anything about me being ‘not very well’ (until last week when I was unexpectedly in hospital because I was actually ill). She seems to be taking it in her stride, and hasn’t asked any questions. She does seem more clingy than usual, and needing to know where I am a lot, and has got even closer to her daddy, especially after he was the primary childcarer all last week. DS, who lives very much in the moment, didn’t seem to notice I was gone for three days, which is good but also…a bit disconcerting!

I’m just glad they are both so young and I can get away with minimum information and maximum reassurance. If they were even a couple of years older, let alone in their teens, I can imagine it would be a lot harder. As things stand, it appears that we’re all happy with the explanation and are Just Buggering On as ever.

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8 thoughts on “Telling your children you have cancer

  1. This must be heartbreaking. Well done for handling it so well. When we told the boys about my mastectomy they were fine, they loved my scars and the drain (that maybe a boys thing), but they did have issues when I was seriously unwell and it did have effects. I am more than happy to talk to you about it, as it was my youngest Mini who was 2, who was the worst hit

  2. Brave and lovely conversation all at the same time. I just couldn’t imagine having to do that talk with my 8yr old.

    Big hugs to all on a regular basis xxx

  3. Natalie says:

    Oh my god Maja, you are something else. My heart aches for you having to have that conversation with darling B but seeing you two together today I can see that somehow, someway she gets it and life does ‘just bugger on’.

    Little minds are truly wondrous ; they are so intuitive and curious and yet all at once so very straightforward. If Mummy says shes not hurting and the medicine and doctors are helping her, thats good enough for me. But I still wont eat my tea…..

    Great to see you, love and hugs, N xxxxxxxx

  4. What a terrible conversation to have to have. Well done on handling it so well.

    When my son became very ill last year (age 5) we were very upfront with him and his siblings (who were 7 and 3). We were positive but honest and focused on the practicalities as arrangements about picking up etc while we were at the hospital was what they were most worried about. Over the last year we have slowly told W. about the likely need for a transplant but it has been little by little. I hope we have done it the right way. I laughed at Just Buggering On as ever because that’s how we do it too!

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