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Cervical Cancer

Talking to children

It can be difficult for parents to know when and what to tell young children and teenagers about cancer. Knowing how much information to give children, wanting to protect them from distress and worrying about how they will react can be challenging.

Many mothers of young children decided not to tell their children that they had cancer. Instead they told them they had to go to hospital to have some treatment, or an operation to make them better because they were not well, or that something was wrong with their tummy. One woman explains how she got advice about what to tell her children who were aged 4 and 5 and that they accepted what she told them.

 

She told her younger children that something was wrong with her tummy and she had to go to the...

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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When I went up for the planning day, the nurses up there were great, they really were and they told me about the sort of things I should do or shouldn't do as the case may be. And I asked them what I should tell my children. And they said "Well how old are they?" and I said "the younger two are 4 and 5 and the eldest one is 16," and she said "Well what do you want to tell them? And I said "I would like to tell them a little bit because obviously I'm going to be disappearing every day to come up for my radiotherapy treatment and later on I'm going to have to have some surgery," and at that stage they'd said hysterectomy but I really wasn't quite sure exactly what that entailed. And she said "Well for the younger two just answer their questions, just tell that you've got to have, that you've got something wrong with your tummy and you've got to, the doctor said that you need to have some treatment at the hospital, something done at the hospital to make it better." And I said "Will that be enough?" and she said "At that age that's probably as much as they need to know and if they want to know more they will ask." And as it happened that was quite a good bit of advice, you don't need to go into all the ins and outs with very young children. If they need to know more they will ask and you can, you can be open and honest with them without lying to them, without frightening them. It's very difficult to get that happy balance but we seemed to manage to do that. My eldest daughter again was very, she didn't really want to know too much about it so we sort of more or less agreed not to speak about it. 

What do you think was the impact on your children?

The younger two at the time, children are very bright, they know when something is going on, but by the same token they're very adaptable and they're very resilient. And they were okay as long as we tried to keep their routine as normal as possible. 

Some mothers of older children told their children that they had cancer but reassured them that everything was going to be fine. One woman told her children, aged 9 and 11, immediately because she wanted them to understand what was happening and why the family were suddenly getting visitors. She describes how her children reacted in different ways.

 
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She told her children aged 9 and 11 she had cancer because she wanted them to be involved and...

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 43
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They reacted in two different ways. I've got a son who five years ago would've been nine and my daughter would've been eleven. And my daughter took over the running of the house, bless her. She cooked all the meals and so she handled it all in a very practical way, whereas my son you know wanted to give me lots of cuddles and he just wanted to be with me. And that said very much about their personalities rather than about how they suddenly started to handle things. And I think it was definitely a time where I wanted to be very honest with them. I came home that night from having been told it at the hospital and I told them straight away because I didn't feel the need to keep anything a secret. I wanted them to share in one of the things that the family was going through, I thought that was very important. And it meant that they were involved in all the times I was at the hospital and all the visits that we suddenly had from different people and I didn't have to pretend. I mean luckily I wasn't, I didn't get depressed or anything but had I done well they would've known why and I thought things like that were very important.

Mothers of teenage children often worried about the impact that their illness had on them. One woman whose daughter was taking her GCSE's was worried about the effect it would have on her but explains that she passed with top grades. Another, who was a single parent, was worried about how her teenage daughter would cope and explains that her daughter became protective of her.

 

Describes her reasons for believing that young people can cope better than you would expect.

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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Well, my children knew I'd had the conal biopsy and they knew that there could be a chance that I would get cancer, but when I got the diagnosis of cancer I didn't want to tell them. I didn't want to upset my eldest, or the other one but my eldest daughter was doing her GCSEs. But people were phoning me because my friends did know, how was I and that kind of thing, which was unusual to have that amount of phone calls. And then I was in the kitchen, my eldest daughter said 'It was alright wasn't it, the results from your biopsy?' I think this was, this was about probably three or four days after I'd gone back and had been told I had got it, maybe it was more than that actually, I did keep it a secret, I kept it a secret more for, a week or more and, and I've always been quite truthful to them. And I said, 'No, actually,' I said ''it wasn't, and I do have cancer.' So yes, so she gave me a hug and she really, she was really quite positive about it and she was, she was then 16. And I had to go in to have the hysterectomy in the middle of her doing her GCSEs. She still had some exams to sit and so, my husband works away, he had to come up and it was my daughter here during the week before I went in supporting me. And she coped really well. And, apparently there was one time when she broke down at school, because, because we didn't tell the school, but then she did then. But she came top of her year in her exams, she got seven A stars and three As in her GCSEs so she was the top girl. So yes, it shows they can cope really. And, and I do think that their view is not as pessimistic as yours and you as an adult, as its happened to you but to them if you say 'I should be OK,' then that's what they believe, and that's what you want them to believe too. So I was pleased.
 

A single parent describes how she discovered how concerned her daughter was through what she had...

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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So it was a terrible time and it was a terrible time for my daughter who is 15, going through the beginnings of her GCSEs, scared that Mummy was going to die, single child, what's going to happen you know. And we have such a close relationship that whatever I didn't say she felt. And she took it, as most children do, they get very responsible for their parents which isn't right. And I remember there's a lady who's in her 80s now who met [my daughter] on a bus and she came up to me the next day and she said "You know [my daughter] is very worried about you, she told me about what's wrong and she's very concerned." And [my daughter] doesn't normally, you know we get on really well with the woman but she wouldn't normally go telling her. And she didn't tell me so really that time was terrible, it was a punishment.

Sometimes women found that their children did not want to talk to them about their illness. One explains how she gave her teenage son a book about cancer but he didn't want to discuss his feelings with her. Another said her teenage daughter didn't want to know too much about her illness and they agreed not to speak about it (see Interview 06 above). A third mentioned that one of her sons, a teenager at the time, found it difficult to talk to her about her illness.

 

Explains that she was worried because her teenage son didn't want to talk to her about his feelings.

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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But I was a bit worried about my son because I did explain everything to him from the first day, I didn't hide anything because I thought, I'm gonna lose my hair so if I don't tell him why, what am I gonna tell him. But luckily I didn't lose my hair with this chemo. But I told him everything; I didn't hide anything from him. I told him everything. And he didn't talk with me, he didn't make any questions so I was a bit worried, but he had a lot of support at school, because I thought it was better if I talk with the teacher and say what's going on and he had a lot of support. And I was in touch with the school to see if he was coping well or not. And the teacher said 'Yeah, he was coping well, they talk with him,' and that's fine, but I was worried about him. That was, my main problem was my son because I didn't know what was going inside his head.

And since then do you know what impact it did have on him?

He doesn't tell me, he doesn't tell me, he doesn't. He did cry once. When I went to hospital for the internal radiotherapy, he did cry that day but it was, that was the only time he cried in front of me, I don't know if he cried not in front of me, that was the only time. But he didn't talk with me, nothing. I did get him a book, there was, that lady who was with the doctor when they told me I had cancer, she was from the MacMillan. And she sent me a book for him to read you know for a child, for children, and I did gave him the book and I said 'Do you want me to read it with you?' And he said 'No.' So I said to him 'OK you read and if you want to ask anything, just ask me and I will explain. But he didn't ask me anything.
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Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated March 2010.

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