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How I talked to my children about having cancer

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.

Cancer rocked into my life when I was 30 weeks into my second pregnancy. My eldest daughter was 14 months old, her questions rarely went past sentences consisting of more than 6 words pointing at objects she encountered throughout her day.

Their ages allowed me not to say anything of my medical experiences, absences, fears, sadness or anger about having cancer. I just needed to be present, caring, calming, reassuring and funny at the appropriate times. I was able to protect them from the trauma and horror cancer created in our lives.

Poppy was about 3 when her pointing finger was directed at my small, scarred left breast as I got dressed one Autumn morning. The pointing finger was accompanied with words asking me why I had one boob smaller than the other. I had been expecting this question for a while. I gave her a brief explanation in a voice of monotone hiding the horror cancer had created and its future potential, Bonnie soon joined Poppy in exploring my difference. My words satisfied them as they had no recollection of my physical and emotional absence and had no reference point to frame my explanation in. My different sized boobs were the norm and I was with them now. Questions would periodically return and be answered in the same format.

My second cancer diagnosis arriving 10 years and 1 month after the first was very different, Poppy was now 11 and Bonnie 9. Their needs and awareness heightened, I was now going to have to be saying a whole lot more. I did not know what the future held, I did not know if I would survive treatment, I did not know if the treatment would work. I did know that at some point I will die and I would need to carefully balance hope and possibility.

My most difficult conversations and emotions have been about leaving my children. I have passionately told them I will never choose to leave them and I will be here for as long as I can. But I know death and possibly cancer will get me at some point. I have chosen not to protect them from this inevitable fact of life, I have kept my words about death realistic and honest.

I have told my children step by step and face to face what was happening in my world of cancer. My aim has been to create calm and safety for them, to keep things stable in the chaos cancer would create in our lives and my mind. On a practical level I kept the routine of the house running with school runs, meals, washing, sleepovers and outings. They saw me at chemo, they visited me after surgeries, nothing of my cancer treatment was hidden from them. I have allowed time for their questions and found they asked questions until they understood what was happening. I base my words on their reactions. If they are worried I back off, if they want to know more I tell them. They have been inquisitive about surgery and scars, embarrassed by hair loss and scared if I have been anxious.

No matter how much stability and calm I have tried to create I have not always been able to manage my emotions about cancer. During the lead up to tests and appointments cancer has distracted me and the fear overwhelmed me. My resilience and tolerance ground down, I am tetchy and impatient. I explain this to my children also. I stick to my values of being open and honest with them and that emotions are part of daily life. I have also shown them that difficult times and emotions pass and calm and balance returns.

Cancer Research UK provide useful suggestions on talking to children about cancer on this link:

How did you talk to your children about cancer? What was their reaction? How did this impact you?

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