Telling Kids About Cancer

When Nancy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 41, she had so many cysts on and around her ovaries that the CT scan did not show her ovaries at all. But surgery revealed the cancer was caught early at Stage 1a. Always a healthy eater and avid athlete, Nancy is diligent and assertive when she discusses her care with her doctors. She is married and has three grown children, two boys and a girl.

Telling my children, who were 17, 14, and 8, that their mother had cancer was one of the most difficult things I have had to do as a parent. It was so difficult for me that I did not tell them right away—a decision I still regret to this day. Honesty really is the best policy. But I had to give myself time to come to grips with my diagnosis and my new reality that now included cancer. I felt I had to digest the news myself before I could be the strong, capable mother that they needed. And I had to take some time to educate myself about my diagnosis and my path forward.

Once I came to grips with my cancer diagnosis, I was ready to tell my children the truth about my cancer. I approached them individually, and I tailored my message to their ages and needs. I told my 17-year-old son first and was very honest and detailed about the diagnosis and the treatment. He was older, and I knew he could handle the information. Plus, he did not like being kept in the dark, and I promised him that I would honestly share with him everything about my disease from that day forward, a promise I have kept. For my 14-year-old daughter, I gave a little less detail but was still honest and clear about ovarian cancer. She accepted the news much more calmly than I had anticipated. She surprised me with a strength and resolve that I didn’t know she possessed. I was almost nonchalant when I told my youngest son about my diagnosis, keeping my words and message simple and reassuring. He took the news in stride and carried on with his life as an 8-year-old.

In hindsight, it was so much easier to talk to my kids about my diagnosis than I had thought it would be. I had been dreading telling them this news, but they ended up reassuring me that they could handle this diagnosis with courage and grace.

Eight years later, when I told them that my cancer had returned, they were incredibly supportive. The older two were adults by then and were completely involved in my care. I think this was empowering for them, and it certainly drew us all closer together as a family. I’ll never forget driving my youngest to high school one day, sharing with him that I was scared about my recurrence, giving him an opportunity to share his fears as well. He turned to me and said, “Mom, you beat it once, you’ll beat it again.”

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