Telling your children you have cancer

“Daddy has cancer.”

For 3 months these words were balled up in my throat making it impossible to breathe, to speak. For 3 months every time I looked at my children’s faces I could feel them rising up like vomit that I had to force back down. The tears welled up in my eyes as I imagined the impending “talk” we couldn’t avoid.

They knew something was wrong. Of course they knew. He had been through 2 surgeries and we had been gone countless days visiting specialists out of town. They’re smarter than I give them credit. The undercurrent in our house was tense and uncomfortable with the unspoken words.

But saying it out loud was more than I could handle. We planned it probably 15 times. “Tonight we’re going to do it,” we would tell ourselves losing our nerve at the last minute. I knew it was important to have control of myself when we finally told them. 

I spent hours upon hours researching “how to tell your kids you have cancer” on the internet. I reached out to friends and family members. I set up an appointment with the school guidance counselor (and I cried through it).

“Use the correct terminology” was a piece of advice I got over and over. It’s important to use the word “chemotherapy” with young children instead of saying “medicine”. You don’t want them to associate these side effects with “medicine”. You don’t want to instill any more fear than  you have to.

My children are young- all 3 under the age of 6- and they don’t have any world view to associate with the words “cancer” or “chemotherapy”. These words don’t shake them to their core like they do us. So the key was gaining control of myself before trying to explain anything to them.

There was always an excuse for not doing it that night. “It’s too late,” “they’re too tired,” “it’s only Monday.” The excuses were plentiful. But we came down to the wire. He had already had his PICC line placed and they spotted it. He was to begin chemo infusions the very next day. Our backs were against a wall. So I poured a glass of wine, snuggled them up in bed, and began very timidly.

“You know how Daddy has had a few surgeries recently?”

“Yes,” they replied.

“Well, the reason Daddy had to have surgery is because he had some cells in his body that were harmful. The doctors had to cut out the bad cells to keep him from getting sick. And now that those bad cells are gone they are going to give him something called chemotherapy to make sure the bad cells never come back. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” they replied.

“Now the chemotherapy is going to make Daddy feel pretty bad for awhile but it’s all to make sure he gets better. He’s going to spend a lot of time at the doctor and in bed for the next little while. And we are going to have to be very mindful of how Daddy is feeling. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” they replied. 

“And if you have any questions at all I want you to ask me okay?”

“Yes,” they replied. And then my 6 YO said “I have a question.”

I braced myself for the impact. Willing the tears, the emotions, the suffocating feelings back just long enough to get through the conversation. 

“May we have dessert? We ate all of our dinner.” She asked innocently.

And all at once the power that the cancer was holding over me and my children dissipated. They have had no experience with the horrors of cancer or chemotherapy. They don’t have the impending sense of doom. They don’t know the stories of those who have gone before. All they want to know is if they can have their dessert.

It doesn’t have to be so powerful. It doesn’t have to hold you captive. The only reason we give this word, this disease, so much power is that we’ve seen the devastation that can occur. But it doesn’t have to. Some people beat cancer and survive. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not anything. It’s just a word. A nasty dirty ugly word that doesn’t have to yield power over us.

We were lucky. He went through the chemo and although he was horribly sick and it was brutal. The cancer has yet to return. The children seem largely unaffected by the whole ordeal. And in fact if you ask them they will flippantly respond “Yeah Daddy was sick but he’s better now. What’s for dinner?”

And that’s all the power that cancer deserves.

Read more about our diagnosis with cancer in The Whole Truth or our coming out the other side in Taking Back the Cheese Drawer

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One thought on “Telling your children you have cancer

  1. Perfectly said! I too, am a cancer survivor, had it when I was 15 and now have a 7 year old. We were very open about it with our son from about the time he was 4 and that I had chemotherapy. It is not scary to him and is just a fact of life. It is wonderful to have that little bit of power over cancer

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