Telling My Kids That I Have Cancer

Of all of the difficult things that cancer has forced me to do, telling my kids the news was the hardest. My kids were 6, 8, and 10 years old at the time. They’re all officially adults now. I was diagnosed 15 years ago, but the memory of telling them feels like it was yesterday.

Getting the news

My general practitioner gave me my diagnosis on a Tuesday. I met with the oncologist on Wednesday. Had a bone marrow biopsy on Thursday. Met again with the oncologist on Friday. It was a very busy week.

Right after getting the diagnosis, I went home and got on the computer to find out more about follicular lymphoma and what I could expect. My wife got started on research, too: how to tell the kids.

We found lots of advice on how to do it, but one thing stuck with us: Be honest. It was tempting to not tell the kids, because they were young and we didn’t want them to worry. But we read that kids notice even small changes, and they’ll sense something is wrong. If you hide it, they’ll still sense something is wrong, and they may assume something far worse than the truth. Our kids suspected something was going on; I had been going to an awful lot of doctors appointments.

Our plan

We decided that the best time to tell them was on Friday. At that point, we’d have all of the information we needed from the oncologist. More importantly, my parents were coming to visit that weekend (we had already told them the news). Another good piece of advice we had read was to pay close attention to your kids, listen to what they were saying, and answer their questions. We figured two more sets of eyes and ears would be helpful. Grandparents were a good distraction, too.

So before my parents came, we sat the three kids down with us. My wife held our daughter (6 at the time), and I had my arms around my sons (8 and 10).  We told them what we knew, honestly, and in language they could understand. Our youngest didn’t fully get it, but she knew it was bad. Our middle child was his usual quiet self, thinking through everything – we knew we’d need to keep an eye on him. Our oldest understood what cancer was. I was able to connect to him by bringing up one of his favorite baseball players, a young man who had been treated for a blood cancer and who came back to win a World Series. I felt my son’s body relax in my arms when I told him that.

The middle one

So our oldest had something hopeful to hang on to, and our youngest was still not sure about what was going on. It was the middle kid, the quiet one, that we needed to pay attention to. He asked some questions and we gave answers. But we could see the wheels still turning in his head.

That night, as I put him into bed, I kept one final thing that we'd read in mind: kids will make connections that only make sense to them. They obviously don’t understand genetic mutations; but they do understand that they misbehaved and then something bad happened, and they may blame themselves for the cancer.

As I tucked him in, my son muttered something. “I wish this didn’t happen to us.” I told him I wished that, too, but we’d all get through it together. Then he said, “It was probably the car accident.” (A couple of weeks before, I had been hit by someone who ran a red light as I was coming home from a doctor’s appointment.) I told him it wasn’t the accident, it wasn’t something I did, and it certainly wasn’t something that he did. He seemed to be satisfied hearing that answer, and I’m glad I had the chance to say it.

My kids today

Today, my kids are all adults, and they’re fairly well-adjusted, despite having grown up with my cancer hanging over them. I’m not one of those people who see cancer as some kind of gift, but I do think our family’s experience has made them more aware that other people have problems that aren’t always visible. Maybe it made them more resilient.

There’s no one right way to be a cancer patient, and there’s no one right way to share your story, including with your own kids. But looking back, years later, I think we did OK.

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