One of the first things I worried about when I found out I had cancer was my kids. I have two kids. A gorgeous little drama queen who is eight and a cheeky kind five year old boy. Questions started whirling round my head, how would my diagnosis affect them? Who would look after them when I was getting treatment? What would I miss out on with them due to being too ill? And scariest of all, what would this do to their little lives if I didn’t make it? Could cancer kill me and leave my precious children without their mummy. My mum died when I was eighteen and it has affected me ever since, I couldn’t bare the thought of the pain my children could suffer.
I’ve always been pretty open and honest with my kids and that was my approach with explaining cancer. Children are very intuitive even if you don’t say much ‘little donkeys have big ears’, they also have strong imaginations. Children pick up on changes in mood and have a knack for eves dropping, they are even aware of the tone of a careful conversation at a young age. If no explanation is given to them for the tension they will come up with their own ideas. Often these can be far worse than the reality. Little people also crave a reason for the shift in their world and can often blame themselves, ‘Mummy and Daddy must be sad because I’m naughty’.
So as soon as I knew I was getting an operation I talked to my kids about my lump and how the doctors had to do an operation to take it out in case it got any bigger. My daughter had her tonsils taken out when she was four so I compared my operation to hers which seemed to help them understand and know it would all be ok. In the beginning we didn’t use the word cancer which I think was possibly a mistake as when it came up later my daughter was upset we hadn’t told her cancer was causing the lump. We also didn’t realise it was important to explain there are different types of cancer that are more serious than others. My daughter came home from school upset one day as they had been reading ‘Gangster Granny’ at school and granny had died of cancer at the end of the story, “Mummy will you die of your cancer” she asked looking pale.
When it came to treatment we talked a lot about how I would be feeling ill but the medicine was getting rid of all the cancer and making sure it didn’t come back, I wouldn’t be able to do as much with them for a while but I would be getting better by Christmas. I think giving them a time scale helped them cope with the change in their routine and see an end point. We also read the story ‘Mummy’s Lump’ so they were prepared for my hair coming out and having friends and family look after them.
I found it very hard taking a step back from my usual mummy jobs, I was the main carer in our house, running my own business from home so I could look after my kids . We were so lucky that we had friends who stepped in to help keep them entertained in the summer holidays and take the pressure off me and himself. Although it was a rough time I loved seeing them spend more time with their dad and our family.
The biggest shock was how well they coped, I was particularly worried about my little girl who had been having a bit of a tough time at school, she couldn’t have surprised me more. She totally stepped up to the mark, she was kind and sensitive when I was ill, she even comforted me when I was crying with tiredness, telling me it would all be ok. We went out for a walk one evening just after I’d shaved my head, I was worried she would be embarrassed but in fact she suggested going over to the shops totally non-phased by my skin head. She has gone on to have a brilliant year at school and grown so much in confidence. My little boy struggled for a while during my chemo, I think he was just so used to spending a lot of time with me and at home, being out with other people all the time made him a bit unsettled. It didn’t last long though and he has breezed primary one like a little star.
Going through cancer as a family is tough I’m not going to lie and we had some horrible days but all in all it was so much better than I expected. Kids are more adaptive and resilient than we often give them credit for. Sometimes in a weird way I think going through a short difficult time is good for children. It makes them appreciate things more and helps them build a belief that they can overcome whatever life throws at them.