No one can dispute that being a parent is the toughest job ever. There are mums and dads the world over doing their absolute best to grow their offspring. Like tending a fragile plant, we nurture and protect. We want nothing more but for our children to be happy, healthy, and safe. So what kind of a mother would want to intentionally hurt her child?
Immediately after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I had visions of my children and thoughts of dying. Then, another bombshell hit me; the prospect of having to tell my three children my awful news. Why would I even contemplate breaking it to them? How could I tell my impressionable 14 year old son and my innocent 10 year old daughters that I might soon be leaving them forever, or that their mum was going to be very unwell at the very least? Every time I thought about it, the lump in my throat would swell.
1. The Feelings of Guilt and Betrayal
Telling them would be nothing less than an act of betrayal. I was supposed to be the one they could trust, the person they could always rely on and the one to make them feel loved and looked after, yet here I was, feeling guilt ridden because telling them would surely crush them. My maternal instincts were saying I'd deny them their childhood happiness. I was convinced it would mess with their minds and ruin their lives.
2. Your Fears Become Their Fears
I was challenged by my own fears and concerns so how could I possibly allay my children's fears if they were to see how scared and vulnerable I was? Surely, if they saw me sad and worried, they would feel the same way. The thought of dying and leaving them was too painful to bear but I couldn't let them see that by getting emotional in front of them. How could I possibly remain composed relaying this message of doom? At the end of the day, I just wasn't brave enough; my tears would certainly betray me.
3. The Deception Can Be Exhausting
Let's not beat around the bush. If you choose to hide your cancer diagnosis from your children, you're basically lying to them. Yes, I lied. Harsh, but true. In the weeks ensuing a cancer diagnosis, there are lots of hospital appointments to attend, probable surgery to undergo and various treatments to be had and believe me, it's tiring 'not telling the truth'.
The game will inevitably start to wear thin and it will get harder still as the plot thickens and the process unravels. Imagine, losing your hair through chemotherapy and your child catches sight of you bald, not wearing your wig? How would you explain that one? By the time I had my chemo, all the children knew but in the very early days, I would keep disappearing into my bedroom and cry privately so they didn't see or hear me. I think I might have cried less had the children known the real situation.
4. Your Child's Age Will Determine What, How and When You Tell Them
When I was diagnosed in August 2007, Robert, our eldest had just turned 14 and our twin daughters were 10. After much deliberation, myself and my husband decided we should at least tell Robert. We deemed him old enough to understand, and I know this might sound silly, but because he was a boy, we thought he'd be less affected than his younger sisters.
Weirdly enough, we even felt stronger and more composed in our approach when breaking the news to him. However, that didn't stop us having a cry. We talked, we held each other and then we gave him reassurance. Afterwards, as expected, he didn't really talk about it very much or ask too many questions, but he would give me lots of hugs and I knew that was his way of awkwardly caring. I was happy with that but I still made sure that I kept him informed and he seemed happy with that too.
When, on the other hand, we considered telling the girls, it was an entirely different matter. I would go into complete meltdown just at the thought because I knew it would really affect them and that we'd probably all end up in a slobbering, tearful mess before I'd even got the word 'cancer' out. I kept thinking about their inquisitive nature and how they'd probably have a zillion probing questions. The twins have always been very attached to me and their loving, demonstrative ways were too strong to ignore. I just knew in my heart that this news would play on their minds, so I went with my gut instinct and resolved not to tell them straight away.
5. Is Honesty the Best Policy?
When I ask the twins now how they felt then, they tell me that one of the worst things was the missing me, the wondering why I was away from home so much and not understanding why I had so many random hospital appointments. They were worried but obviously very determined to find out what was going on as it was only the other week, 10 years down the road, that they confessed to looking at my emails and discovering my secret. I blame their mischievous twin nature!
Joking aside, knowing what I know now, I wish I'd been honest with them. I realise that in trying to protect them, and myself, I did us all an injustice because I still caused them anxiety. If I'd been completely upfront right from the beginning, all the unanswered questions my children had would have been easier to answer. When they eventually confronted me, above all, I was sorry for causing them worry and I felt compelled to apologise.
6. It's Not a Cop Out if You'd Rather Have Someone Else Tell Your Child
It may seem like you're shirking your responsibility, but the alternative to not telling your children would be to ask someone else to break the news instead. At the time, it didn't really occur to me that I could have asked someone to break the news on my behalf, but I wish that I had considered that as an option.
7. Telling Your Child About a Recurrence
I had no family history of breast cancer, and there were certainly no risk factors where my health was concerned. In fact, being a personal trainer made me particularly healthy, so I could never understand the reason for my diagnosis. The only consolation might be that my fitness did keep me in good stead and I passed the 5 year mark unscathed. Seven years down the road and living my life with gratitude, I was convinced my breast cancer diagnosis was just a glitch.
My optimism was abruptly interrupted, however, when in July 2014, I was once more confronted with the dreaded words. A PET scan had revealed that the lump behind my collarbone was in fact cancerous, and that there was another infected lymph node in my chest wall. The notion of going through more surgeries and treatments filled me with blinding panic, and then the familiar morbid thoughts began taunting me. Worse still was the thought of having to tell my children that the cancer had come back.
It certainly wasn't any easier this time. A diagnosis of secondary breast cancer is incurable, and trying to explain that to anyone can be tricky, let alone your own children. The rollercoaster of ups and downs was set in motion, and the feelings of hurting my son and daughters were just as strong, even though they were older and more mature in their thinking.
There was something quite different though. This time, I would tell them straight away. Once I'd got all the facts straight in my mind, I felt confident that I could talk to them without breaking down. Yes, the cancer had spread, and sharing the news would be upsetting, but the previous 7 years of having lived with breast cancer had obviously taught me more than I realised. It had taught me, and still teaches me, to be stronger and resolute. This may sound harsh but the more you're forced to think about your mortality, the less traumatic and upsetting the scenario becomes.
At the end of the day, whether you tell your children or not is a personal choice and there is no wrong or right answer - but whatever you decide to do, here's a quick check list of points to consider.
• Make sure you tell your breast care nurse or consultant that you have children, so they can give you lots of information and guidance from the outset.
• Children are naturally very curious as well as perceptive. Even at a very young age they can sense that something serious is happening, and can pick up vibes of a life changing event affecting the entire family.
• Remember that a partner, a family member, or a friend could support you with breaking the news of your cancer diagnosis. Have a discussion beforehand to ensure you are clear about the facts, and that you agree on the details to be passed on to your children.
• Keep lines of communication open, and give your children age-appropriate information. They will react and act differently depending on their age. The word 'cancer' can be terrifying for young imaginative minds, but it's always better to be honest and factual.
• Expect lots of questions; give them the opportunity to ask them, and your time to answer them. Some of these questions may be upsetting or uncomfortable, so be prepared.
• It's important to tell your children that they are loved, and that the cancer has nothing to do with them; they might think it's their fault or they've upset you and in some way caused it. The reassurance that you care deeply for them, and that they will always be looked after, will help to allay their fears.
• Inform your child's teachers so they are aware of the circumstances, and will ensure that there's support at school, should your child need it. If you feel, however, that your child needs specialist support, you can explore the counselling route. The effects of a parent's cancer diagnosis can be traumatic and far reaching for a child, especially if they are susceptible to already feeling anxious.
Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK. This year alone, more than 50,000 women will be told they have breast cancer, and around 11,500 women will die from the disease.
Breast Cancer Now is the UK's largest breast cancer charity. To help support their world-class research targeting incurable secondary breast cancer, visit breastcancernow.org/get-involved