How I told my five-year old I had cancer…

In this post, Shine member Steph tells us how she talked to her son about her diagnosis. What are your experiences of talking to young children about cancer? Please share this post and add a comment if you like.


When I was diagnosed with cancer in July 2016, my first thoughts were ‘I just need to get through this for him’ – ‘him’ being my nearly five-year old, Theo. We’d arranged a fantastic party for his fifth birthday and all I was concerned about was being there for it.

As it happened, the first part of my treatment was booked in for a week after the party. This was such a relief. The sun shined brightly that day and it couldn’t have gone better.

I knew, though, that I had to tell him about my cancer because there were going to be things he’d see, and things that would come as a surprise to him. Perhaps everything he was used to might change. Who knew at this point?

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Steph and Theo

I read a book that was written to help you tell your children about a cancer diagnosis, and I was genuinely saddened by it. It talked about the family getting angry and the diagnosis not being the child’s fault, and about parents getting cross but telling the child not to blame themselves. Then there was a picture of utter chaos: dad was in the kitchen in his pyjamas, there was a knife in the fish tank, the dog was eating the kids’ cereal and the kitchen floor was flooded. It was absolute carnage – it simply looked to me like daddy wouldn’t be able to cope. This was not at all what I wanted Theo to see or understand. The book and the tale it told just really didn’t work for me.

A different approach

I wanted something that said, ‘no matter what happens, Mummy is doing her absolute best for you, and doing everything in her power to be OK’. So I decided to write a poem. I needed it to be personal to Theo to help him understand that the future might look different for a while, and that Mummy wasn’t going to be well.

Dear Theo,

Mummy has written this for you, it’s a rhyme, 

And wants to read it to you from time to time.

For now, mummy does feel a little sick,

But a cuddle from you would do the trick.

Sometimes mummy will stay in hospital for the night,

The nurses will take good care of her, she’ll be alright.

You know you take medicine from a spoon,

Mummy has medicine too which’ll make her better soon.

The doctors are doing all they can to make her well,

Why not even wish her a get well soon spell?

Mummy is trying her absolute best,

But sometimes she needs a little rest.

You are all she thinks about day and night,

And dreams about you and her flying your kite.

As always be the loving person you’ve always been,

You’re the bravest boy mummy has ever seen.

Theo’s reaction

The first time I read it to Theo, he smiled and said ‘wow, it rhymes!’. I knew, though, that he’d heard the underlying messages. I was lucky too that when Theo was with his dad, he’d read it to him as well. Theo heard the poem over and over again, and even asked for it sometimes. I think it prepared him for the next few months and taught him that there was likely to be a fair amount of change coming.

As changes were on the horizon, I told him when they were going to happen: a stay in hospital, surgery (and therefore he’d have to be extra careful and not jump on me) and losing my hair. Theo never really asked any questions and dealt with it all very matter-of-factly – a little like me, I think.

Theo really didn’t like my wig though and wanted me to just ‘be me’ and not hide behind it. My hair is growing back now, and the other day he asked if I could shave it again as that’s what he preferred! It struck me that no matter what, children love you unconditionally – and even if I’m feeling different or unusual, to him I’m normal and I’m his mummy.

I also visited Theo’s school as I didn’t know how he would be affected by my illness and if it might come out in class. The school were fantastic: they set up an Emotional Learning Support Assistant for Theo, with whom he had a chat with once a week. It seemed that no matter what was happening, I was still his mummy, and he simply told them what was going on at that point in time. It gave me a great peace of mind to know that the staff were looking out for him when I wasn’t able to do so.

Looking back

I find my poem hard to read now as it brings back so many difficult memories. At the time, my priority was to make sure that Theo would be okay, and that I got through everything as easily as I could for him.

I’m so glad that I didn’t go in all guns blazing with that book, and that I took some time to think about what was right for us.

If you like the poem or think it would work for you, too, then feel free to read it to your children.

If you’re affected by any of the issues that Steph has discussed, you can join our private Facebook group and find peer support.

If you’re free on 19th May, join us at Shine Connect 2018, our annual conference. We’re having a session specifically for parents going through cancer who want to support their children. More information at shineconnect.co.uk.

You can also look at the list of useful organisations on our website

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