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How do you tell your children you have cancer?

Coping with the diagnosis of cancer is tough enough, but how do you tell your children? One patient shares her experience in this difficult conversation.

Most of my patients avoid discussing with me the single most difficult aspect of a serious illness: the dread of leaving young children behind. But Karen chose to share her experience with me, and I hope her story can help others.

“Make sure you put in some advice about how to tell the kids,” a colleague urged me.

My first response was: “I don’t know if I can. It’s such a difficult topic.”

“You have to,” she insisted. “You know how much our patients struggle with this. I know Karen does.”

I looked across at the row of chemotherapy chairs and realised to my dismay that nearly half of the patients receiving chemotherapy that day were parents of young children. A 40-year-old patient called Karen caught my eye and smiled. Karen was a lovely woman, an actor. She had played good roles in local productions but her work had come to a sudden halt when she was diagnosed with cancer. Things looked good for many months, but lately she had become unwell and started another round of chemo. I had always been open with her, so she knew that this time, my expectations of chemo were modest. She had decided she would give it a good try but if things were still not looking up after a few weeks, she would stop treatment and concentrate on being home with her three children, aged four, six and 10, and her husband, Jim.

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