If you are a parent, telling your children you have cancer is nearly as bad as hearing you have it. Especially if they are young children. You may wonder how much do you have to tell them? Will they understand? You don’t want to scare them unnecessarily, but you also need to be able to share something, anything with them.
Coming from a child whose mother died of breast cancer when I was 7, and then contracting the same disease when I was 43, I find myself in a strange position of being able to offer my perspective from both sides.
So, first of all, you’ve been told that you have Cancer. I kind of remember “my moment” well, but at the same time, I feel like it was someone else’s nightmare. You know that sinking feeling in your gut? I felt that, as well as feeling really lightheaded, and then wondering (of all things) whether it would be appropriate to burst into tears or howl in anguish whilst the doctor was explaining this to me. But the overall feeling that I felt was fear. Pure fear. Fear that I was going to die. Then fear of how this was going to affect the people who mattered most in my life. Who were my husband and two young daughters.
Back in 2015, Mira was aged 9 and Lara was 6. After Matt and I had our moment of utter sadness and fear whilst sitting in our car in the hospital carpark, we wondered what to tell our daughters. We decided on the truth. But truth wrapped in positivity. Because how else would children this young understand?
My mum died when she was 7, but she would have been diagnosed when I was about 6 I think. I say “I think” because quite frankly, I can’t remember much. I am unsure if the holes in my memory are due to my intentionally forgetting the brutal memories, or because I wasn’t told about the fact that my mum was dying from this horrible disease. My first memory was of my mum wearing a wig, surrounded by her friends having afternoon tea at home. She seemed well enough then, but she’d lost her hair due to chemo.
The next memory I have, is of the actual day she died. I remember seeing her in bed, she seemed to be in a lot of pain. I remember the drive to the hospital, and my sister begging my dad not to re-marry if mummy died. I remember the hospital, waiting. Then dad coming out, kneeling down on the floor, with his arms outstretched toward us, and the 4 words no child wants to hear “Mummy’s gone to heaven”.
Apart from that, I don’t remember much. Do I wish I’d remembered more? Now as an adult, I can unequivocally say yes. I wish I’d known more, then I would have treasured those moments more. I may not have realised just how precious those moments would have meant to me at that young age, but I wish I had more memories of her.
If you are a parent who is dying from cancer, you don’t want your children to suffer. But I think it’s also important that you give them the chance to process what’s happening. Children can handle more than we give them credit for.
The day we were told of the awful news, we went home and told our girls that I had cancer, but I was going to have surgery to remove it and that I would be fine. They were very scared and there were tears. Of course, we had no idea if I was going to survive this. But, regardless if I was telling my child or my sister or a friend, I’d have said the same thing. You wouldn’t exactly say “Hey, I have cancer, I’m going to have surgery and I may die”. Of course not. Positivity is the required emotion. So we hugged them and said the words that many a parent has said to their child “It’s all going to be Okay”.
The school counselor at my daughter’s school also advised in telling the truth from the outset. She had a case in school where the parents decided to not share the cancer news with their children (who were at the time, tweens). They thought they were protecting them from feeling anguish at the news, but in actual fact, it was probably the wrong move for them. The older daughter found out in school, from a friend. I assume the friend didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag, but inadvertently did so by either sharing her commiserations or just asking about it. Unfortunately, her daughter then felt so betrayed by her mum. She couldn’t believe that everyone else knew about it but her, and felt that she’d lost the ability to trust her mum.
My daughters, although so young at the time, were incredibly resilient. And supportive. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that they helped me every single day. Just by being there. They had lovely words of encouragement, and really gave me the will to live.
After school, Lara would come home, get herself a snack and a book, and crawl into bed with me while I slept from the effects of the chemo. She didn’t have to say a word. Just her presence, being there, was enough for me. Mira being a bit older, would confidently tell her friends and teachers at school that her mum had cancer but was getting better. They wanted to get involved in making me better, so they decorated 12 golf balls with words of encouragement. These balls were known as my chemo balls, and represented 12 taxol tranfusions. Every time I finished a round, the girls would take turns moving the chemo ball from one clear vase to another, cheering as I completed yet another round.
If I hadn’t told them I had cancer it would have been so hard to hide the physical effects I was feeling. Not to mention that I had a bilateral mastectomy. Oh, and that my hair all fell out. I would have been caught up in a tangled web of lies. Far easier just to be honest and tell the truth.
I can understand that if you’re only having minor surgery (like a lumpectomy) and no radiation or chemotherapy, then you’d feel there was no reason to tell your kids. After all, there wouldn’t be any physical tell tale signs. And perhaps, if they were very young (subjective at best to figure out at what age this means to you and your family), then telling them about cancer would be hard because they really wouldn’t understand it.
But when they get old enough, I’d recommend telling them. It could be something along the lines of “hey, you know how I have this scar? Well, a few years ago I had cancer, and had surgery. You were far too young at the time, so we decided to wait until you were a bit older to understand”. You may ask if it was even necessary to share this information with them. Absolutely. Because it’s imperative that our children are fully aware of any potential risks of disease that they may face. By sharing this information, they will be self aware and when they become adults they can make their own lifestyle choices that they feel may be best for their health. Regardless of when you tell them, they may have a lot of questions so best be prepared. And if they don’t have many (any) questions, then they are likely processing the information and will need you to be patient with them.
Of course, what you decide to do is entirely your choice. But children can get angry and feel betrayed if you don’t share Big News with them. My own experience with that was when I was 9. My dad had been dating a woman whom we had grown fond of. They got married in May 1981. When did my dad tell us? An hour before they got married. He hadn’t bothered to ask us what we thought, or to tell us before that. Although we knew about it of course, but he didn’t talk to US about it. I remember that moment. We were in his bedroom, and my sister and I were dressed in our “wedding attire” and he said “Girls, daddy is getting married”. And I felt, as furious as any 9 year old could be, like punching the lights out of him and screaming “No Shit Sherlock!!!!”. But I didn’t. I was silent. And kept everything inside of me until my confused and rebellious teenage years took over and I then hated my dad and step mum.
We are alright now of course. But I didn’t trust my dad for a while. I was angry and incredulous that he hadn’t told us himself, indeed told us first before anyone else and even asked how we felt about it. And that was how I felt about his second marriage. I didn’t have enough time to process how I felt about my mum dying, because the over riding feeling I had was just sadness. Pure sadness that stayed within me until I became a mum myself.
So that’s my take on it. Whatever you decide to do, I know your decision will be based on what you feel is best for your family. And that’s all that matters. But if you’re sitting on the fence about whether to tell your kids – my 7 year old self in 1980 would have said “Please tell me everything because I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared”.