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How I told my kids I had cancer

Updated: May 16, 2023

Telling my kids I had cancer was the single worst thing I have ever done.

Ironically, when it came to the crunch, I just couldn’t do it and my husband had to take over.

I was a busy mum-of-two working two jobs when I was told I might have cancer by the GP. (You can read about that here.)

I was still reeling and wondering how I was going to keep the family going. After all, I was the glue that kept us all together. How could we keep going if I was sick?

I was sent off for more tests and then a hospital appointment to confirm it. My husband, Scott, joined me for the appointment with the oncologist. We had to farm Freya, then 10, and Gordon, then 7, out on playdates so we could go together.

The speed of my diagnosis and the start of treatment meant We didn’t have time to research or plan. Instead, we asked the oncologist how to tell the kids and she told us not to lie to them. Keep it simple and keep it straight, she said.

In the car on the way home we spoke about what we were going to do. We both felt strongly that we couldn’t hide something this big from them. They would know something was going on.

They both have amazing imaginations. What they would imagine was going on was probably going to be a lot worse than the truth.

But I also knew that I would have to go to hospital to start chemotherapy within days. Things were moving to quickly for me to hide treatment.

How do you tell a child "Mummy has cancer"?

In the end, my husband, Scott, had to break the news. I just couldn’t speak. I didn’t trust myself to open my mouth without crying – my heart was breaking for them – for the journey I knew faced them and the unfairness of it all.

Scott kept it simple. He said that I was sick with cancer and that I needed to visit the hospital a lot to get better. He said the treatment would take a long time and that she may not be better until Christmas in six months’ time.

“But Christmas is so far away!” Gordon said. That broke my heart.

Scott also made it clear that you can’t catch cancer from other people and that lots of people who have cancer get better.

I don’t think the enormity of what we told them sank in at that moment. They went to their rooms for a bit and then joined us to watch something as a family before getting ready for bed.

In the days that followed, there were many questions. I found the Cancer Council’s Talking to kids about cancer booklet online which was an incredibly useful resource as I needed advice from people with experience in this field.

However, what I really wanted was a picture book I could read with Freya and Gordon and help them to prepare for what they were going to face.

I had been given information to prepare me for my journey but there was nothing for them.

What did my diagnosis mean for them? How would it affect them? (I couldn’t find anything that had the practical advice I was looking for so I wrote one. Read more about my book here.)

Telling the kids I had cancer was a lifechanging moment in their lives. Or so I thought.

Now that I am revisiting it to write this, I asked both my kids what they remembered.

My son, now 12, quickly told me where we were all sitting at the table. “You were there and dad sat over there,” he said.

“But what did I say? How did you feel?,” I pressed.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

I asked my daughter, now 15, what she recalled of this life-changing conversation.

She said: “I don’t remember anything. It was such an awful period that I think I just blocked it out.”

Telling the my kids I had cancer was a tramatic conversation for the whole family but revisiting it has taught me something – the trauma didn’t last.

We were more resilient that we ever imagined at the time. And I know you will be too.

Gordon’s protest – “But Christmas is so far away!” – stuck with me in the months that followed.

I ended up using it is my book, Mum’s Purple Scarf, which is written from the child’s perspective to help equip kids and their family through the journey of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

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