Telling your child you have cancer

How do you do it? What words do you use? Do you use the word cancer? How age appropriate is it? What age is appropriate to tell a child? All of the questions have been on my mind for the last 3 years. There is no manual on this, well… maybe there is but I haven’t seen it…

Ali was 1 and 3/4s when I was diagnosed. She was barely verbal. There was no way to tell her what was going on, would she even have understood that mammy was sick? How would a toddler have comprehension of such a concept? And anyway, I wasn’t sick, I never used that word. I was healing, I still am…

She knew something wasn’t right and her behaviour told us that. We moved house and she started in a new creche all within the space of a few weeks. I was on the road every day of the week attending appointments to help me heal and when I was at home, I was doped up on cannabis oil. Mammy wasn’t present. She felt it. She would scream at anyone who came to the house until they left. It was hard on her.

Roll on 10 months later and the trips to Turkey began. Again, mammy wasn’t present. I spoke to her on video calls every day and she wouldn’t even look at the phone. She protested almost every time. It was difficult for both of us. At this stage she was 2 and 1/2.  Again, how do you tell her? She knew I was going to Turkey and we told her I was going to see the doctor to get better. I’m not sure how much she understood again but she loved to see me coming home, presents in tow every time. Compensating for my absence.

My hair fell out two weeks after I began treatment. So we shaved it off in her presence and she helped me put it in the bin. We normalised it, she didn’t get a shock seeing mammy with hair one minute and none the next. She was part of the change.

When she was 3, I brought her to Turkey. She met my medical team in person, she had seen them all on various video calls, when she gave a few seconds of her attention. She finally got to see where I’d been going. She was on an adventure. Still, we didn’t mention cancer. Mammy was better now.

The trips to Turkey stopped and we had some time. Results were good and life carried on. No need to mention cancer now. And then it came back. And chemo was on the cards again. And my hair might fall out and I might get very sick and maybe now, I might have to tell her. Afterall, she’s 4 and 1/2 at this stage and probably a bit more able to understand.

So what did we do? Well I looked up some books online because it’s probably easier to explain something to a child using a story they can relate to. But it’s hard to judge a book by it’s cover and I struggled to pick one so I contacted a girl I met who has a book shop and specialises in books which cover topics such as living between two houses, having two mammies or two daddies, moving house, moving school, friendships, feelings etc… She has some pretty amazing books and I got one about starting school for Ali a few months ago which was a really great introduction to what it would be like. I asked her if she had any books about telling children about cancer. She didn’t but she went on the hunt for me and sent me a great book called ‘Big tree is sick’.

The story is an analogy for cancer and cancer treatment. Big tree gets woodworm, the doctor gives him medicine, cuts off one of his branches to stop it spreading, he gets weak, loses his leaves and he finally gets better. We read it to her every day and night for about a week and then I told her that mammy is like big tree and that I have to go to the doctor and the hospital for medicine. I haven’t lost my hair or been really sick but if I am, I’ll refer to the book. I haven’t used the word cancer with her, mammy has woodworm that the medicine is making better.

So we’ve made a start, she’s kind of in the know now. I have no idea whether it was the right or wrong way to go and I hope that by withholding it until now hasn’t messed her up in some way. It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s not and I guess when they’re very small, it’s just impossible to tell them anyway. I don’t know when we will use the word cancer or if we ever will, it doesn’t seem age appropriate at the moment given the fact that the word is loaded with fear and sadness.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you’ve had to tell a child about an illness, what was appropriate for you and what was the fall out, positive or negative…


This essay is taken from my Patreon site where I publish the majority of my writing.

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