HOW TO TELL YOUR KIDS YOU HAVE CANCER
One mum shares her first-hand experience
UNLIKE A LOT OF WOMEN WHO ARE DIAGNOSED WITH BREAST CANCER, I NEVER FOUND A LUMP. I’D NOTICED THERE WAS SOMETHING DIFFERENT ABOUT THE APPEARANCE AND FEEL OF MY LEFT BREAST, BUT IT TOOK SIX MONTHS FOR ME TO MENTION IT TO MY GP AND THAT WAS ONLY WHEN I TOOK MY DAUGHTER FOR AN APPOINTMENT.
I was 43, working full-time as a teacher, looking after my daughters Anna and Sofie – who were six and four at the time – and juggling responsibilities with my husband Richard. The doctor had a look and said it was probably age-related, but she booked me in at the breast clinic anyway. We were about to go on holiday, so it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I went in for a mammogram and biopsy.
The waiting game
When they told me they'd found cancerous cells, my husband and I were knocked sideways. I was quickly booked into Ipswich hospital for surgery and they took away about a third of my breast as well as lymph nodes to see whether the cancer had spread. There was a two-week wait after the surgery to find out the results and, to be quite honest, that wait was more painful than the actual surgery itself.
We decided not to tell the girls until we knew the results – and it wasn’t until much later that we used the term cancer. Thankfully, when the results came back, it didn’t look as though the cancer had spread – I could have radiotherapy rather than chemotherapy, which has less side affects. So, I took the Christmas term off work and went to hospital five times a week for the next five weeks for the radiotherapy sessions.
Time to explain
When it came to telling the children, we didn't know how – I’d asked for advice at the hospital, but there wasn’t much around to help. So we told them that Mummy wasn’t well, but rather than mentioning cancer, we used the analogy of an apple – that it’s like when you get a bruise on an apple and you cut it out to stop the rest of the fruit going bad. The girls were so young that they just accepted this, although they were curious as to where I went every day.
One weekend I took them into the radiotherapy unit and once they'd seen where I was disappearing to, their worries
‘When it came to telling the girls, we didn’t know how and there wasn’t much advice out there’
went away. Even now if they hear someone talking about cancer they’ll say, 'Oh, that’s what you had,' and it doesn’t faze them.
Friends and family were great supports and helped with school pick-ups and drop-offs when I was in and out of hospital. I was often really tired, but you just get through it, and my family and daughters gave me the motivation to get better.
During my treatment I decided to start writing a book for parents like me and What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer was born. The story is inspired by our experiences, and I used the same apple analogy that worked with my daughters. I ran everything by the cancer nurses and my surgeon and the hospital even provided some funding to help me pay an illustrator.
Writing the book during my treatment has meant something positive has come out of a really difficult time. The girls were really involved in the whole process – helping me proofread and looking at the illustrations. It’s taken a lot of fundraising over two years, but the book was finally published in February this year.
Having a book means you can cuddle up on the sofa with the kids on your knee and, even if what you’re going to tell them is unnerving, that scenario feels so safe. It opens up dialogue and explains that it’s not Mummy’s fault, then goes through the analogy of why she needs to get better. It’s sold through my website and any profit goes to Cancer Campaign in Suffolk. There are also copies in Ipswich hospital for mums being treated there.
Now, I’m in remission and life has gradually gone back to normal. The thought of secondary cancer does worry me, but I’m mostly positive about the future. I have mammograms once a year and I’ll go straight to the doctor rather than waiting if I have any problems.
I do worry that my daughters may become more anxious about it as they get older and understand more. A close friend of mine recently passed away from secondary breast cancer and Anna and Sofia knew her well, so they've seen that for some people cancer doesn’t work out well – we just try to be open and discuss it.
Ultimately, it’s such a difficult subject to talk about with your kids, so I hope my book can help other mums going through the same thing to tackle the conversation.
TO ORDER OR DOWNLOAD What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer, GO TO WHAT WEDIDWHENMUMMYGOTCANCER.CO.UK
‘Writing a book for parents like me made something positive out of a difficult time ’