I remember the day the surgeon definitively told me I had breast cancer like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful sunny June morning. The day was filled with excitement and anticipation. My husband and I were leaving on a trip just the two of us that night. My in-laws had arrived from out of town to care for my two daughters aged 10 and 12 and we had a big celebration ceremony at the girls’ school that evening. I didn’t have time for a detour.
The appointment with the surgeon was supposed to be a consult. I was just expecting her to tell me she would order more tests. I was not expecting the gut wrenching conclusive words. “You have Breast Cancer…you need to have a mastectomy as soon as possible.”
My head was screaming and whirling like an amusement park ride. My fears were running wild. Would my children be without a mother? Who would be there to watch them grow up? Who would guide them and teach them? Was I going to miss their graduations, their weddings, their babies? Who was going to love them like only a mother can? How was I going to tell them I had cancer?
It all felt so surreal. I felt like I was floating above myself. I could not believe this was happening to me.
Facing the kids that day was terrifying. I didn’t think I could go home after the appointment. I was an emotional wreck. But life didn’t stop around me. I had to take a deep breath and do my best to pretend like everything was normal. The support of my husband, the distraction of my in laws visiting and the school celebration helped keep everyone moving forward. I knew the kids could sense something was going on, but also knew I wasn’t ready to tell them. I couldn’t make sense of it yet myself.
Having some time away with my husband to grieve and think, turns out to have made a huge difference in our ability to manage our emotions at home with the kids. We had time to do our crying away from everyone. Time to feel our way through the fog of shock, denial and anger. Time to search reputable web sites, to reach out to support centres like the Canadian Cancer Society and Wellspring, to read the books and pamphlets, to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience. To plan how we were going to tell the kids.
Having a plan was key to our confidence in telling them. Here are some ideas of what to keep in mind when making your plan.
- Keep it simple. Too much information will overwhelm children. You can give more detail later if needed. Start with sharing the basic facts.
- Keep it age appropriate. Use words your child will understand to explain what cancer is. What you tell a young child is different from what you tell a teen. We borrowed a book from Wellspring called When a Parent is Sick. Helping Parents Explain Serious Illness to Children by Joan Hamilton that helped guide us immensely.
- Keep it current. Explain what is going to happen in the near future or as much as you know. Will you be in hospital? Will your appearance change? Are there side effects?
- Keep it practical. Who will look after them? Will they be going to their usual activities? Are there regular routines that will change?
- Keep it honest. It is okay to say you don’t know all the answers right now. Tell them you will let them know as soon as you know.
- Ask them if they have questions. Ask them to tell you in their own words what they think is happening. Ask them “What are the kinds of things you are worried about?”
- Commit to keeping your children up to date about the illness and treatment.
- Plan to check in regularly.
We gathered on the family room sofa. All four of us linked together. I was very nervous. They knew big news was coming. Unbelievably a thunderstorm and downpour were starting outside. Nature was reflecting our feelings. We took another big breath and together my husband and I told our two beautiful daughters the honest truth. Mommy had breast cancer. The fear on their faces is not something I will ever forget. Their tears mixed with mine forever in my memory.
After the tears we were able to talk. We told them what the treatment plan was. Who was coming to help us. How things were going to be a little different for a while. We let them ask questions. While I had prepared myself for them asking if I would die, it was hard to hear those words come from them. It just didn’t seem fair they had to worry about such things. But I knew we had to be honest. I couldn’t guarantee I was not going to die. We told them we all die at sometime, but mommy and her doctors were doing everything possible to fight this disease. They had questions about me losing my hair. How long would I be bald? Would I wear a wig? We talked about them coming with me to pick out a wig. Coming with me for a hair cut before chemo started. We involved them with what they felt comfortable doing. They seemed relieved to be a part of the plan.
Once we told our daughters I had cancer it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from our shoulders. I could breathe again. I could see the worry in their little souls when we told them but it didn’t take long before they were playing and laughing again. The sun miraculously came out after our tears had dried. This is something my girls still remember about the day we told them I have cancer. They remember how afraid they were when we started talking, but in the end the storm had stopped raging, the sun came out and they felt like everything was going to be okay.
It is important to know there is no right or wrong way to tell your children you or someone you love has cancer. Everyone has past experiences and current circumstances that guide their reaction to a diagnosis of cancer. However, children are very perceptive. They feel family stress. What they imagine is wrong is often worse than what is actually going on. Tell them what is happening as soon as possible. It is far better they hear the news from you. Talking honestly with our girls and sharing our own feelings was the first step in coping as a family with this new detour in our life.
More information and support:
There is help in your community. You are not alone in this journey. You can get support to help tell your children, to help children who are not coping or to help you. I can’t imagine our cancer journey without the love and support of our family, our friends, our neighbours and the resources in our Halton community. We were very lucky.
For more tips and hints about talking to your kids, or to share your experience, there are many ways you can talk to one of us directly:
- Leave us a comment below – we’d love your feedback
- Talk to us on Twitter: @haltonparents
- Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Call the HaltonParents line for parenting information or to speak directly to a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) Simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.