These three girls right here are our whole world, our everything:
How do you tell them that one of their parents has cancer?
Really, how do you tell them such devastating news? What do you say? How do you shatter their world? It’s something you hope you never have to do. I am, by no means, an expert on this. But we were forced into this situation out of necessity thanks to my cancer diagnosis. All I can do is to share with you our experience in having to tell our girls that I had cancer. As a parent, you want to shield your children from sad, terrible things, to protect them from getting hurt. If only we could keep them in a bubble away from the hardships of the world, right? But that’s not how it works. They will all at some point be exposed to the trials and tribulations of life. I guess that’s when things get real and another tough part of parenting kicks in-teaching our children how to handle the trials when they come. This is so hard when you yourself are still learning how to deal with a big trial, such as cancer, as well. And I can say that telling your children that one of their parents is sick is scary, horrible, heartbreaking and just as awful as you can imagine. But I can also tell you that children are amazing. They are so resilient and they can handle “big” things better than you might think.
When I was diagnosed, our oldest was just turning 10, our middlest was 6 and our youngest was 4. At first, we didn’t tell our girls what I was going through medically. They’re kids, they didn’t need to know about my pain and discomfort. And we didn’t want them to worry when we didn’t have any details about what was going on yet. But, let’s be honest, kids are very perceptive and they knew something was going on. They knew that Mommy was feeling sick a lot and that I had been to the doctor a lot and that I had needed a few procedures done. It’s hard with something like rectal cancer, an illness that you can’t see, because when you look normal and fine on the outside people just don’t really see the pain you are in. So I think it was hard for my girls to think of Mommy as being sick when I looked fine on the outside. We also were dealing with varying ages of understanding. We all sat down on our couch in the family room on a Saturday afternoon and my husband explained that Mommy has cancer. I couldn’t even talk, I was just trying to be strong and hold it all together. Our oldest didn’t really know what cancer was, but she had heard the word and knew it wasn’t good and that people die from it. Our younger two hadn’t heard of cancer so, luckily, it didn’t mean too much to them at first.
We kept our conversation pretty basic. We told them that Mommy has an illness inside of me called cancer. We told them that I will get better but that first I will have to do some medicine that is going to make me really sick. We talked about how the good doctors are going to help me to get rid of the cancer, but that it’s going to take a long time for me to get better. We asked them if they had any questions and we answered them as honestly as we could. We also told them that if they had any questions in the future to just ask us. We stressed the fact that they could talk to us anytime about anything. Of course, I was crying. It broke my heart to have to have this conversation with our girls, even though I knew that they didn’t grasp the magnitude of what we were telling them. Our oldest keeps her emotions to herself and is pretty reserved so we made sure to check in with her separately later to make sure she was ok. The younger two girls gave me lots of hugs and kisses and told me they would be my nurses to help me feel better. That is the best medicine for your heart right there! And then we let them make a big old mess in the kitchen by baking cookies by themselves. They had a blast. We didn’t want to sit around and dwell on the sad news we had just given them. I think it was important to show them that it’s still ok to do normal things and to laugh and have fun.
So here are my tips for telling your kids you have cancer, or really when you have to give them any similar difficult news:
- Be honest-Kids aren’t stupid. They know more than you think they do. And they are very perceptive and know when you are lying to them. We have an honesty policy in our house and our girls know they can talk to us about anything, anytime and we will be honest with them. And this goes both ways too, we expect them to be honest with us. (We’ll see how this goes during the teenage years, ha ha!)
- Don’t give gory details-Being honest doesn’t mean you have to give them all the gory details of your illness though. You don’t want to scare them. Or gross them out. Just keep the information you give them age appropriate. Remember, whatever you tell your 4 year old they are going to tell anybody else who will listen. Am I right?
- Give them time to process-Just as you needed time to process your diagnosis and treatment, your kids will too. After thinking about it for a bit they might have some more questions. Or they might become more scared of what you being sick means as the news sinks in. Be there for them for any reactions that come later on.
- Check in with them regularly-It can be really hard to tell with kids what they are actually thinking or feeling. Throughout your treatment process check in with your kids and see how they are doing. Ask again if they have any new questions or concerns. Make sure they know they can talk to you. This was critical for us to do with our oldest because she tends to keep things in. It helped to take the time to talk to her individually, she usually opens up a little bit more that way.
- Give them the game plan-Let them know what will be happening as best as you can. Our goal was to try to keep life as normal as possible for our girls. But, obviously, there were going to be a lot of changes going on. We explained that I was going to have to go to the hospital daily for a few weeks (for radiation). We told them that Grandma and Grandpa were going to move in for that time to help out while I wasn’t feeling good and Daddy was at work. Then before starting chemo we explained how I would be tired and might feel sick a lot. At least for us, our kids seem to handle things better if they have some idea of what might happen.
- Explain your boo-boos that they can see-While you may not want to share all of the gory details, if they see a bandage from a blood draw or a small surgery, explain simply what was done. My girls still talk about my “surgery” when they see the scar on my chest from my port. It takes the fear out of doctors and medical procedures for them a little bit. And they also get to watch the healing process and realize that our bodies do heal.
- Also explain any medical devices you have to use-When I came home with a chemo pump every other week that I had to wear for 48 hours straight, obviously my girls were going to ask me about it. And when I was receiving home hydration and had a nurse come and hook me up to an IV of fluids, they were very curious about how everything worked. It was a good learning experience for them though. And it helped them to realize that just because someone has a medical device doesn’t make them weird or scary.
- It’s ok to show your emotions-I had times of pain and I had times of sadness and there were times that my girls saw Mommy cry. But it’s good for our kids to see our emotions. It shows them that we are human too. And it’s a good opportunity to show them how to handle our emotions. And they are the best snugglers when you are sad!
- Check out your hospital’s resources-A lot of hospitals offer helpful services through social workers there as well. I know that I had a social worker assigned to me at UCI who would check in with me at almost every appointment I had. They can give you resources to help you through difficult times like this. I know there are support groups available for patients going through cancer, for their caregivers and for the children of cancer patients.
I can say now that we survived the cancer diagnosis and treatment together as a family. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy. But we found a new normal and the medical stuff just became part of our life. There are still times when one child is having a difficult time (like when my 8 year old cried and latched onto me for the first 2 weeks of school this year) when I wonder if it’s the result of me having cancer. Blame it on the #momguilt I feel for dragging them through this cancer whirlwind. I guess there’s still a part of me that’s scared they are somehow messed up by all of this. But I know in reality that it’s probably just an emotional 8 year old being an emotional 8 year old. We did the best we could in the situation. And I think we handled it pretty well. There were a lot of good times and positive things that happened during the months of cancer treatment too, so it’s important to remember those. I think we are all actually stronger now than we were before. And I think in the end we’re all going to be ok.
*If you want to start reading from the beginning of my cancer journey, click here.