At a glance
- Read the available literature on talking to children about cancer.
- Have a plan on what you want and need to say.
- Make a physical or mental note of the facts and stick to them. Don’t speculate or rely on statistics.
- Prepare people gently – have family and friends sit down and tell them you have bad news.
- Don’t expect any particular reaction – everyone’s different.
- Lack of reaction isn’t a sign of not caring – some people need longer than others.
- Give people time to process the information.
- Ask if there’s anything else they need to know – note any questions you can’t answer and find out from your multi-disciplinary team.
- Involve your children’s school in the wider conversation.
Jen and I came home in utter shock on the day of the diagnosis. It’s totally bizarre on reflection, but I went to the hardware store nearby to pick up some strimmer nylon and saw our eldest son’s partner who worked there. When she asked me how I was, I made a split decision to tell her. Jen and I had already discussed that it wasn’t going to be a secret and she was happy to be open about it. Anyway, the poor lass at the hardware store got the first iteration of a story that would become well practised. She was wonderful – started crying and asked if it was OK to give me a hug. Once we’d hugged, she asked me how I was! Well, I nearly broke down there and then! Bless her. She’s a wonderful girl and we’re so happy our lad met her. But I digress.
Aside from dealing with the initial diagnosis, telling our children was arguably the next most difficult thing we had to do. It was definitely one of the most difficult decisions we’d had to make in our lives up to that point. We decided to be upfront and honest about what was happening. Our eldest was at university, our youngest was in full time employment and living at home. We naturally had concerns about disrupting their lives with the news and, like any parent, instinctively wanted to shield them from the truth for fear of hurting them.
On balance we felt honesty was more important – we certainly wouldn’t be able to hide the truth from them and we wanted to ensure there was trust from the outset. We considered it to be more damaging for them to feel excluded or outside the problem which may prevent them from talking about how they were feeling – either for fear of hurting us or through a lack of trust.
We also made a point of telling our kids at the same time. I don’t honestly know why, but it seemed the right thing to do. Ideally we would have wanted to tell them face to face but the eldest was away at uni so we opted to tell our youngest in person while our eldest was on video chat. We explained that Mum had been diagnosed with a breast tumour and that it was potentially life threatening. That it was treatable and that further tests were necessary in order to establish whether the cancer had spread. We kept the language simple and clear and remained calm throughout. We explained that we didn’t know how things would turn out, that it was going to be difficult for a while and that we didn’t have all the answers. We made it clear that they could ask any questions and we would answer them. If we didn’t or couldn’t know the answers we would find out.
I say ‘we’ a lot in the last paragraph, but it was mostly ‘me’ telling the kids as Jen was simply too emotional a lot of the time to speak.
Letting people know about the diagnosis is entirely your partner’s decision. That is, she decides if and when and who it’s shared with.
If you have children, if, how and when you tell them is entirely down to you and your partner and will largely depend on how old they are. I would recommend open honesty – life is real after all – but be sure to be calm when you tell them.
There are various guides on how to approach the subject with younger children and there is a link at the end of this chapter which provides more information on talking to children and teenagers.
If you’ve decided to tell people from the off and especially if you’re telling people on the first day of diagnosis, it’s likely you’re going to do most of the talking because, unless your partner is made of stone, she’s going to be emotional.
Of course, it may be that you’re very emotional too, so it may be necessary to tell a trusted friend or family member and ask them to let everyone know. If you and your partner need space to console each other, make sure this is conveyed to everyone so you’re not inundated with calls.
Try to work out approximately what you’re going to say and how much you’re going to tell people.
Try to avoid wild speculation – both to the positive or the negative – and stick to the facts. Most people know bullshit when they hear it.
You’re going to have to tell quite a few people, so pace yourself and keep it brief if you need to. Make a list of the people that need to know and separate them into those who need to know immediately and those who don’t.
It may be easier to tell multiple people in an email – at least, those who don’t need to be told face to face or verbally. Perhaps best saved for those who aren’t close.
Naturally, there will be people on the periphery of this that will want regular updates as the journey progresses – be they family, friends or colleagues. Consider setting up an e-group either via email, instant messenger (WhatsApp, FaceBook or whatever the ‘app du jour’ is when you’re reading this) so you can update multiple people in one fell swoop each time something of note happens. Even if you can get a handful of people into a group you’ll save yourself valuable time, not to mention sanity at having to repeat yourself. It’ll also help you keep track of who’s updated and who’s not. Trust me, you’ll start to lose track of what’s said to who and when.
Oh yeah, you’re going to hear “If there’s anything I can do….” and ‘Be/stay strong…” a lot. I mean, a fucking lot. Try not to be dismissive – the people saying it haven’t heard it said to you the last 100 times, plus you never know when you’re likely to actually call on that help. Of course, some people offer to help when they don’t plan to help at all, some offer to help when there’s nothing they can possibly do to help and some come through for you when you least expect it. We’ve found this journey to be very telling as to the character of the people we know and love. You might too.
The following is a list of the types of people you’re going to need to inform. Obviously you need to flesh the list out with names, but hopefully it will help in the planning. Tick the names off when you’ve told them. Oh, and don’t forget the following list should cover your partner’s and yours:
I’ve included strangers in the above list because your partner’s illness is going to be a major part of your lives, albeit temporarily. You’ll probably become quite blase about telling people after a while – I certainly did – so it’s worth having a think about how much you want people to know. There are aspects of treatment that can make it quite obvious what’s happening, for example, loss of hair or external drains post-surgery. I found it easiest to just tell people once I was sure Jen was happy for them to know. It’s not something that needs to be kept secret. You may be surprised who else is experiencing something similar.
go to macmillan.org.uk and search for ‘talking to children’.
go to a search engine and search for ‘talking to children about cancer’.