Who we are I’m Emma and I founded and now run The Osborne Trust, the only national charity that focuses all of our support on the children of a parent with cancer. The Trust was launched in 2014 after my own cancer diagnosis aged 36 years with …
Tag: parenting with cancer
As a Breast CNS Team in a large NHS Trust, we see breast cancer patients who we support from screening, diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Our role has changed over the years and non-more so than in the last twelve months since the coronavirus pandemic hit …
This guest blog is from Mary Huckle, in which she talks about how she told her 10-year-old twin girls and 14-year-old son she’s been diagnosed with cancer. She shares her tips for dealing with children of this age group.
7 Things to Consider When Telling Your Child You Have Breast Cancer
No one can dispute that parenting is the toughest job ever. As mums and dads, we do our utmost best to grow our offspring. Like tending a fragile plant, we nurture and protect. We want nothing more but for our children to be happy, healthy, and safe. So what kind of a mother would want to intentionally hurt her child?
Immediately after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I had visions of my children and thoughts of dying. Then, it hit me again; the prospect of actually telling them my awful news. Why would I even contemplate breaking it to them? How could I tell my then impressionable 14-year-old son and my innocent 10-year-old daughters that I might soon be leaving them forever or that their mum was going to be very unwell at the least? Every time I thought about it, the lump in my throat would swell. The feelings and emotions overwhelmed me and to be honest, I felt confused. What would be the best thing to do? What would someone in my position do? There was so much to consider.
1. The Feelings of Guilt and Betrayal
Telling them would be like an act of betrayal. I was supposed to be the one they could trust, the person they could always rely on and the one to make them feel loved and looked after, yet here I was, feeling guilt ridden because telling them would surely crush them. My maternal instincts were saying I’d deny them their childhood happiness. I was convinced it would mess with their minds and cause them anxiety.
2. Your Fears Become Their Fears
I was challenged by my own fears and concerns so how could I possibly allay my children’s fears if they were to see how scared and vulnerable I was? Surely, if they saw me upset and worried, they would feel the same way. The thought of dying and leaving them was too painful to bear but I couldn’t let them see that by getting emotional in front of them. How could I remain composed relaying this message? At the end of the day, I just wasn’t brave enough; my tears would certainly betray me.
3. The Deception Can Be Exhausting
If you choose to hide your cancer diagnosis from your children, are you lying to them? Yes, I believe I did lie, by attempting to hide all the tell-tale signs and goings on. In the weeks ensuing a cancer diagnosis, there are lots of hospital appointments to attend, probable surgery to undergo and various treatments to be had and believe me, it’s tiring ‘not telling the truth’. The game will inevitably start to wear thin and it will get harder still as the plot thickens and the process unravels. Imagine, losing your hair through chemotherapy and your child catches sight of you bald, not wearing your wig? How would you explain that one? By the time I had my chemo, all the children knew but in the very early days, I would keep disappearing into my bedroom and cry privately so they didn’t see or hear me. I think I might have cried less had the children known the real situation.
4. Your Child’s Age Will Determine What, How and When You Tell Them
When I was diagnosed in August 2007, Robert, our eldest had just turned 14 and our twin daughters were 10. After much deliberation, myself and my husband decided we should at least tell Robert. We deemed him old enough to understand, and I know this might sound silly, but because he was a boy, we thought he’d be less affected than his younger sisters. Weirdly enough, we felt stronger and more composed in our approach when breaking the news to him. However, that didn’t stop us having a cry. We talked, we held each other and then we gave him reassurance. Afterwards, as expected, he didn’t really talk about it very much or ask too many questions but he would give me lots of hugs and I knew that was his way of awkwardly caring. I was happy with that, but I still made sure that going forward I kept him informed and he seemed OK with that too.
When, on the other hand, we considered telling the girls, it was an entirely different matter. The twins have always been extremely attached to me and their protective ways were too strong to ignore. I would go into complete meltdown just at the thought because I knew it would really affect them and that we’d probably all end up in a slobbering, tearful mess before I’d even got the word ‘cancer’ out. I kept thinking about their inquisitive nature and how they’d probably have endless probing questions. I just knew in my heart that this news would play on their minds, so I went with my gut instinct and resolved not to tell them straight away.
5. Is Honesty the Best Policy?
When I ask the twins now how they felt then, they tell me that one of the worst things was the missing me, the wondering why I was away from home so much and not understanding why I had so many random hospital appointments. They were worried but obviously incredibly determined to find out what was going on. It would be 10 years later, that they would confess to looking at my emails and discovering my secret. I blame their mischievous twin nature! Joking aside, knowing what I know now, I wish I’d been honest with them. I realise that in trying to protect them and myself, I did them an injustice because I still caused them anxiety. If I’d been completely upfront right from the beginning, all the unanswered questions my children had would have been easier to answer. When they eventually confronted me, above all, I was sorry for causing them worry and I felt compelled to apologise.
6. It’s Not a Cop Out if You’d Rather Have Someone Else Tell Your Child
It may seem like you’re shirking your responsibility but an alternative to not telling your children would be to ask someone else to break the news instead. At the time, it didn’t really occur to me that I could have asked someone to break the news on my behalf but I wish that I had considered that as an option.
7. Telling Your Child About a Recurrence
I had no family history of breast cancer and there were certainly no risk factors where my health was concerned. In fact, being a personal trainer made me particularly healthy so I could never understand the reason for my diagnosis. The only consolation might be that my fitness did keep me in good stead and I passed the 5-year mark unscathed. Seven years passed and I was living my life with gratitude. I was convinced that my breast cancer diagnosis was just a glitch.
My optimism was abruptly interrupted, however, when in July 2014, I was once more confronted with the dreaded words. A PET scan had revealed that the lump behind my collarbone was in fact cancerous and that there was another infected lymph node in my chest wall. The notion of going through more surgeries and treatments filled me with blinding panic and then the familiar morbid thoughts began taunting me. Worse still was the thought of having to tell my children that the cancer had come back.
It certainly wasn’t any easier this time. A secondary diagnosis is incurable, and trying to explain that to anyone can be tricky, let alone your own children. The rollercoaster of ups and downs was set in motion and the feelings of hurting my son and daughters were just as strong, even though they were older and more mature in their thinking. There was something quite different though. This time, I would tell them straight away. Once I’d got all the facts straight in my mind, I felt confident that I could talk to them without breaking down. Yes, the cancer had spread and sharing the news would be upsetting but the previous 7 years of having lived with breast cancer had obviously taught me more than I realised. It had taught me and still teaches me to be stronger and resolute. The more you’re forced to think about your mortality, the less traumatic and upsetting the scenario becomes.
At the end of the day, whether you tell your children or not, is a personal choice and there is no wrong or right answer but whatever you decide to do, here’s a quick check list:
- Make sure you tell your breast care nurse or consultant that you have children so they can give you lots of information and guidance from the outset.
- Children are naturally very curious as well as perceptive. Even at a very young age they can sense that something serious is happening and can pick up vibes of a life changing event affecting the entire family.
- Remember that a partner, a family member, or a friend could support you with breaking the news of your cancer diagnosis. Have a discussion beforehand to ensure you are clear about the facts and that you agree on the details to be passed on to your children.
- Keep lines of communication open and give your children age appropriate information. They will react and act differently depending on their age. The word ‘cancer’ can be terrifying for young imaginative minds but it’s always better to be honest and factual.
- Expect lots of questions; give them the opportunity to ask them and your time to answer them. Some of these questions may be upsetting or uncomfortable, so be prepared.
- It’s important to tell your children that they are loved and that the cancer has nothing to do with them; they might think it’s their fault or they’ve upset you and in some way caused it. The reassurance that you care deeply for them and that they will always be looked after will help to allay their fears.
- Inform your child’s teachers so they are aware of the circumstances and will ensure that there’s support at school, should your child need it. If you feel, however, that your child needs specialist support, you can explore the counselling route. The effects of a parent’s cancer diagnosis can be traumatic and far reaching for a child, especially if they are susceptible to already feeling anxious.
Motherhood is hard enough without a cancer diagnosis! In a time of pandemic, being confined to our homes, home schooling and wearing countless hats of not only parent, but teacher, entertainer, friend, sibling, chef and cleaner, having a ten-year-old pre tween daughter and going through …
You’ve been diagnosed with cancer. The big question is… do you tell your kids?
As parents we naturally want to protect our children from anything that might hurt, upset or worry them. It’s part of a parent’s make-up. If we could wrap our children in bubble wrap and implant a tracking chip in them, we would. But the reality of life is that we can’t do that and children will experience hurt, upset and anxiety in their childhoods, despite our best efforts.
So, what do you do when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer? For Clare, a single mother of Jack aged nine, she chose not to tell her son that she’d been diagnosed with cancer or that she was having surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and Herceptin.
Clare was diagnosed with breast cancer last year mid-lockdown. She’d had an itch for a while and got it checked out by the GP who told her it was nothing to worry about. Having private medical insurance through her full-time job, she chose to have an appointment with a breast surgeon with a view to possibly having a small procedure to cure the situation. So, after a delay of a couple of months (because she is a busy single working mum) she went to see the surgeon in May.
The surgeon agreed with the GP that there was nothing to worry about but just as she was leaving and giving her authorisation code for the consultation, the Surgeon noticed that she was eligible for a mammogram. It made sense for her to have the mammogram then and there. So, she did. And, in the other breast to the itch, they found something suspicious. Following an on-the-spot biopsy, she was told that it was 99% likely to be breast cancer. A lot can happen in an hour. Alone, driving home, and her only thoughts were this is going to ruin Jack’s childhood.
Her son was due back home the following day after staying with his Dad and all she could think about was how this was going to impact him and how she could keep it from him.
A bit of background…
You see, Clare and her son have had their fair share of turmoil, Jack started out living in Spain, with Clare, her then husband and his two daughters (who they saw a lot and lived close enough for Jack to have a very good relationship with). But five years ago, Clare divorced her husband and she and Jack moved back to the UK with nothing. It’s taken a while, but over the past five years they’ve made a comfortable home, found a good school and football club for Jack, made friends and live close to Clare’s supportive siblings and friends.
Jack’s Dad moved back to the area a few years after and Clare now shares custody with him on a 70:30 basis. But it’s been tough and the last thing that Clare wanted was to put her son through more turmoil. There are not many things worse for a child than a parent going through cancer. The guilt kicked in and Clare couldn’t bring herself to tell Jack that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer – especially when it was a sunny VE bank holiday in the middle of a lockdown and they’d been looking forward to celebrating (at a social distance) with neighbours.
So she didn’t tell him. It wasn’t the right time and she didn’t want to upset him.
The day of the operation
Then the day of her operation came along. By this time, it had been agreed that Jack’s Dad would share Jack on a 50:50 basis while Clare was going through treatment and he’d agreed not to tell Jack about the cancer. She went in for her operation which was a wide local excision and breast reduction.
She told Jack that she was just going to have a breast reduction and that he didn’t need to worry. In fact, he was more embarrassed than anything else so that worked, no more questions asked. By the time Jack was home from his Dad’s, Clare was at home recovering well. Jack had no idea that his Mum had just had the cancer cut out of her breast.
Going through treatment
She was originally told that following surgery she’d have radiotherapy. So the plan was to have the radiotherapy while Jack was at school. There would be no need to tell Jack about the radiotherapy as he wouldn’t even know that she was going to the hospital every day. However, once the pathology results came back after surgery it transpired that her breast cancer was triple positive and she’d in fact need chemotherapy. Clare cried. She really didn’t want to put Jack through cancer with her – she realised that she really didn’t want him to know that she had cancer. She managed up to this point in not having to tell him and now that she was faced with having to tell him (who can hide chemo after all?) she knew that it was her priority not to tell him. She wanted him to be happy and carefree and not have to worry about his mum – especially when the whole world was going through a global pandemic.
But Clare’s determination to protect her son from cancer meant that she had to find a way. She used the cold cap which meant that she kept most of her hairline so although it looked different and she lost all of her length, what nine-year-old football-mad boy is going to notice that. And as for her eyebrows and eyelashes – she made sure she applied eyeliner and did her brows before Jack woke up every day.
She also arranged with Jack’s Dad that Jack would stay with him from the day of chemo and for the first week after chemo. This allowed Clare the week following chemo – you know, the really tough week – to recover on her own at home. She was hit badly by the chemo and had to call an ambulance a couple of times. It’s hard for anyone who lives on their own to go through chemotherapy but through a lockdown whilst having to shield was very tough.
Jack came home for week 2 post-chemo. This week was easier than week one, but Clare still didn’t feel great. However, Clare says that having the determination to shield Jack from her cancer made her get up and about with Jack, and she’s sure that it helped her to recover.
So by week 3 post-chemo she was well enough to be the active single mum she’s used to being. And Jack didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She told Jack that she had some bad cells that needed this horrible medicine to get rid of them, and her hair would be a little crazy for a while – and they laughed as he said her hair has always been crazy in the mornings anyhow. So he knew there would be times where she was tired and wasn’t feeling well. And then chemo was over and radiotherapy began – and lockdown number 3 happened but she managed to make it work with him still not knowing.
Being at a private hospital, meant she was able to choose the early slot each day and was in and out within 20 minutes – some days she took Jack and he stayed in the car playing Fifa with the receptionist watching over him. Clare took a picture of the radio machine so he knew something, although no words were used, his only concerns was if it hurt and laughing that he couldn’t possibly stay still for that long. Also, all Herceptin was arranged to be administered at home while Jack was at school – so now he’s being homeschooled, they are ‘vitamin injections’. It’s important to know that at all points he was able to ask any questions or speak to either Clare or his Dad, but he didn’t. He really missed all the worse of it!
Why did Clare decide not to tell her son?
So why did Clare decide not to tell Jack that she had cancer? Well to be honest it wasn’t a deliberate decision to start with. It was more a case of not finding the right time coupled with the guilt of putting him through the turmoil that it was bound to bring. And then, after a while, having not told him to start with, coupled with Clare’s own memories of her own difficult childhood, it didn’t seem right to tell him. It was at this point that it became a deliberate choice not to tell him, and to actively keep it from him.
She wanted to protect him. She had the opportunity to wrap him in that bubble wrap (albeit just for a little while). He was nine, he’d been through a tough time with the divorce and move back from Spain a few years earlier and was finally settled; the world was living in a global pandemic with lockdowns on then off then on again. The guilt that Clare felt, is what made her keep it from him. Clare, herself didn’t have a great childhood, so this was the last thing she wanted for him.
So now that treatment is over (other than 6 more Herceptin injections) Clare is starting to feel physically better and she’s back at work. Does she regret not telling Jack? No, she’s certain it was the right thing for her to do in her circumstances. Clare knows that everyone is different and deals with these sorts of things differently. She knows that a big part of not telling Jack was that the circumstances allowed her to not tell him. If Jack lived with her 100% of the time then she thinks she probably would have had to tell him. But her view is that the circumstances meant that she didn’t have to tell him.
Will she ever tell him?
Will she ever tell Jack that she had cancer the year of COVID? Yes, she will. In fact, she is planning on using this blog and sharing her story so he can read it when he’s older.
This is a guest blog from the Fruitfly Collective about how to talk to and support your children throughout your cancer diagnosis. One of the reasons why it so hard to tell your child that you have cancer is the primal feeling of wanting to …
Natasha had a four year old son and seventeen month old daughter when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and here she explains how she talked to her children about her cancer diagnosis and generally managed her parenting while going through cancer.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in June 2017 my son had just turned four years old. My daughter was seventeen months old. It felt like the world was caving in.
Every time I looked at them, I was gripped by an all-consuming fear. I was terrified of leaving them; afraid of what the coming months would bring; and felt horrendous guilt for the sudden shift in their lives, the uncertainty that faced us all and the impact on them of what lay ahead. They were so small. My daughter still liked to sleep with me…….every night!! My son was only in pre-school.
We went to the pre-school graduation the weekend before my biopsy results were back and I watched his little friends sing their songs and graduate. I wondered would I be there the following year for his graduation. Never mind college graduations, I just wanted to make his pre-school ceremony!
What should we tell them?
And of course, the question of what to tell them. What should I say to these tiny little people whose Mum was suddenly sick? How should I tell them? What should I tell them? Should I tell them anything at all?
In the end, my husband and I decided we would tell the kids, well our son in particular, that I had breast cancer. My husband actually did the telling. I just couldn’t do it to be honest. He downloaded a book and at bedtime he sat down and told our baby boy that I had cancer.
He already knew that something was going on. There were visitors to the house. My Mum had barely left since my biopsy. I was going to hospital appointments, and Daddy was coming with me. People looked and sounded stressed. There was a lot of whispering when the kids were around. He knew something big was happening and he was worried.
My husband told him that Mammy’s breast (boobie) was sick, that it had something called ‘cancer’. He explained that because my boobie was sick I would have to go see the doctors a lot and would have to have some operations. The book he read was wonderful. It explained breast cancer in simplistic language that a child his age could understand. He knew that I would have an operation and that I would have to take some very strong medicine called chemo which would make my hair fall out. He also knew that I would be having treatment for a long time and would be tired and need to rest.
How we talked about cancer with the children
I never promised my son I would get better. Instead, I promised him I would work as hard as I possibly could with my doctors and that I would keep on doing my best to get better because I loved him so much. My daughter was 17 months old at diagnosis. We read her the book but she really didn’t understand as much. As time went on and she got bigger she understood more and knew I was sick and had to get “chemo medicine” and that I would be tired and feel ill sometimes.
We promised both our kids that no matter what there would always be someone to mind them, even if Daddy was working and I was in hospital. We told them we loved them both more than anything and that no matter what medicine I took or if I lost my hair, I was still Mammy and I would always love them and do everything I could to look after them.
Was it hard? Yes, to this day it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced as a parent. To them I am Mammy, I am their protector, washer of clothes, singer of silly songs, maker of dinner, provider of snacks. I did not want to tell them I was ill. I felt I was letting them down, that I wasn’t doing my job properly and had failed them by getting sick. However, I also wanted to be honest with them, to tell them what was happening in words they understood. I wanted them to know that when I went to hospital it was because I was working on getting BETTER, that when the doctors gave me my ‘chemo medicine’ it was to help me get back to being their Mammy.
Talking to them helped
Did telling them help? I think it did. My son understood I was sick. He knew I was getting medicine that would make me tired and that I would go bald. He knew it would go on for a while but that he would be looked after and so would his sister. It is hard to avoid the word cancer being used around the house and kids are very astute. My mum often says ‘Little rabbits, big ears’ and this is definitely the case! They might look like they are playing happily but guarantee they take in more than you think. Hence, we wanted to use the word cancer so it was not something to be feared. It became part of our language, as did chemo. When my hair fell out, I showed the kids and my son rubbed my head and told me I was still beautiful. He’s a little charmer!!
I continue on hormone treatment and have monthly zoladex injections. There have been times I have had to bring the kids with me for my shots, or they see me taking my meds in the morning and have asked what it’s for. I tell them it is to hopefully stop me getting cancer again. I’m three and a half years out from diagnosis now and would still occasionally have chats with my son in particular about that period in our lives. My daughter doesn’t remember much, but he does. I think being able to talk about it openly helps reassure him, plus if I get sick at all he isn’t concerned that the ‘sick boobie’ is back. This was our approach. It worked for us and I’m glad we chose to use the words cancer, chemo etc. The decision on what to tell your kids can be a tough one, but there is lots of advice and support available online from various cancer charities so don’t be afraid to reach out.