How to Tell Your Young Kids You Have Cancer

September 01, 2021
How to Tell Your Young Kids You Have Cancer

Written by Danielle Christopher

I never understood my mom more than when I had to tell my two young children that I had cancer. They deserved to know. No one told me that my mom had cancer. She died when I was ten years old. My children were around the same age when I got my news. I wondered if my mom felt the same fears that I had ever since the doctor told me that I had to have colon surgery as soon as possible. Despite an earlier detection of Celiac Disease, gluten still attacked my internal organs. 

I always thought about when I would get cancer, and not if I would get it in the first place. Not only did it take my mother, but my only sibling is a three-time survivor. She is the closest family I have outside my household. My own news triggered all the stress I felt back then. I remember how I tried to keep both households going during the third battle and dragged my kids, aged one and three, with me to my sister to appointments. I pondered whether I should ask them if they remember that time. Or would it cause more anxieties? 

Losing my primary parent at a young age, I wasn’t a stranger to the stages of grief. I didn’t know the names of them though until I was an adult. I needed to figure out how to support my kids through each stage, including my own journey dealing with it all. I wanted to do better in communicating with my daughters. Because I was left in the dark as a child, I didn’t how to begin to tell them. I had to come up with a plan first. 

As a writer, I am used to research. So, I got busy.  I asked my doctor for tips on how to break the news. He shared with me how other patients did it. I took a lot of notes on what I found out. As an avid reader, I hit my local library and bookstores. Discovering books like the comfort story, Invisible String by Patrice Karst. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Illustrated edition Oct. 30, 2018.) The tale shares about how we are never truly alone. I loved how it didn’t preach to kids about cancer and the healing process, but just let them know that others were facing the same problems as we were. 

I did research on social media (thank goodness for this era!) and I also gave the heads up to their schools. That way they have a safe place to unpack their feelings away from home. Parenting books never covered how to tell your kids you’re sick, but after discovering what I could find about it, I was ready as I could be.  

We gathered in the living room as a family.  Michael, my husband, was seated next to me. I turned the TV off and said I needed to talk to everyone. I had news. I began by telling them what I wished I had heard as a child, age appropriately of course. I said I was sick and needed to go to the hospital for surgery to get the “bad stuff out.” I would be gone for a few days, and then back home to recover. I would miss them.

The oldest had a few questions. I answered as honestly as I could, without giving her the adult baggage versions. She asked if she could catch it. No. She asked if I was going to die. I said not yet, which is  why I need to have the colon surgery: to help me live. That is why I listened to the doctors. I assured them both that this wasn’t like their grandma’s cancer, and that thankfully, having a crappy family history got me seen early for testing. With all the medical advances since their grandma’s passing, I relayed my optimism that I was going to be okay. 

I handed them each a special item of mine for safekeeping while I was away. For my oldest, I gave her my favorite writing inspired bracelet that had the inscription “I’d rather be writing.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. For my youngest, I gave her one of my coziest hoodies. I told her it’s for anytime she needed a hug from me. Knowing my kids were taking care of my precious items, and that my keepsakes were helping them cope, made me feel better. 

My kids are my motivation to follow the doctor’s instructions and get through this. I am lucky to be their mom. I still remember my mom in my day-to-day life. I try harder when parenting to compensate for my kids not having a grandma in their lives.  As of this writing, I am nearing two years cancer-free. Each negative test is like crossing the finish line in a marathon. By being prepared before I talked to my kids, I eased my own anxiety, and hopefully theirs. I will be alright , and so will they.

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