When you are first diagnosed with Cancer if you have children they will be your first thought, particularly if they are young. Being diagnosed at the age of 37 with a 6 and 8 year old at the time I had planned writing their birthday cards for years to come and letters to them for special occasions before I even had a treatment plan.
Initially I was diagnosed at stage 3 and given hope that I could be cured, I explained to my children that there were some bad cells in my body called Cancer and that the doctors would remove them, and I would then have some nasty medicine for a few months to try and kill off any cells the doctors could not see. I explained the nasty medicine would make me feel poorly for a while. I was careful not to promise the children that everything would be OK, I did not want to make promises I could not keep.
In the beginning, I did not feel the need to look for help in talking to my children, I was hopeful that things would all turn out fine and they would not need to know any more than that mummy had been sick for a while but was better now. Unfortunately for me and my family some months after completing my first lot of chemo I was told the Cancer was back and now in my lungs.
This time I was told my Cancer could not be cured, there was no surgical option for me and I would be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life, however long or short that might be. I had no idea how to tell my children, all I could think about was that I was going to die and would not be there to support them. I wanted to find support and help with talking to my children.
I searched the internet for help, I found lots of information from Macmillan, but it was very generic, I really wanted to talk to someone. I was lucky and the hospital I am currently treated at has a family psychology department that I was referred to. I was able to talk through how I planned to talk to the children and what I planned to put in place to support them and get confirmation I was doing the right things.
I thought it might be useful to others to share my experience of talking to my children, I am now 39 and my children are now 8 and 10 years old. I decided to keep things very simple, but truthful, I also decided to drip feed information so as not to overwhelm them. I often take time to process information myself before telling the children, if they ask me about appointments and I’m not ready to talk I simply tell them that I will tell them what happened but I need to make sure I understand it all first.
First I sat the children down and told them the Cancer was back, and this time it was in my lungs, I told them that the doctors could not cure me but were going to do their best to keep me here with them as long as possible. I told them that if they ever had any questions or wanted to talk about it all they need to do is ask me. I also told their school and anyone else I thought should know in case they saw signs that my children were struggling with what was happening.
So here are my top tips for talking to children about Cancer and an incurable diagnosis:
- Keep it simple
- Be honest
- Give information in small site size chunks
- Be prepared to answer questions
- If you do not know be honest and, do not make something up
- Be prepared for questions to be not quite what you expect to be asked
- Make sure children know they can talk to you at any time, and also that they can talk to others they trust
- Make sure other caregivers, friends and family know what you have told the children
- Try to make it as normal as possible to talk about Cancer, its side effects and the uncertainty of the future, this will become easier over time
- Try not to have conversations you are obviously trying to hide from the children, they will pick up on it and it will worry them, they may also overhear something and misunderstand
Here are some actual questions from my children and my answers:
Child 1: Mummy are you going to die? — Me: Everyone dies at some point, but I might die earlier than we would like.
Child 2: Mummy will you last until the end of the year? — Me: I hope so!
Child 2: Mummy, if you die, will Daddy marry someone else? — Me: He might, but that’s OK because I want him to be happy
To be honest, my children have not really asked many questions, and the questions do ask come at the strangest times, definitely not when you expect them!
So far my children seem to be coping well, their school has not raised any concerns and they seem comfortable to talk about what is happening with me.
I am sure others can add to my top tips above, and will have many other questions they have been asked by their own children. Perhaps when sharing this blog anyone else with experience of this situation may be prepared to share their own experiences…… And if anyone out there has any questions for me I am always happy to talk to others, I am happy to do anything that will help raise awareness or help others in my shoes.