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Here's how I told my 6 kids I had cancer — and what I wish I'd done differently

Here's how experts recommend disclosing a cancer diagnosis to kids. (Photo: Getty)
Here's how experts recommend disclosing a cancer diagnosis to kids. (Photo: Getty)

Columnist Jenn Morson is a freelance writer whose words appear in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and many other print and online publications. She lives with her husband and six kids in Maryland.

When I first found the lump while breastfeeding my youngest, my husband and I were up front with our children, letting them know that the doctors just wanted to be thorough in performing a lumpectomy. Since the odds were in my favor at only a 10% chance of cancer, we felt confident in reassuring them that this was merely a precaution.

When I received the email notification to check my patient portal for pathology results, I skimmed through for familiar terms. I read “Ductal Carcinoma in Situ” — carcinoma meant cancer, Google reconfirmed — and walked to the couch to let my husband know that it was Stage 0 and that I would be opting for the more drastic of two treatment options for my own peace of mind.

Next up would be telling our six children, ranging in age from 16 down to 2 years of age. While I was able to discuss matters calmly with my husband, I worried about how I would reassure them that I would be OK when I was so scared myself. My biggest fear was that I would leave my children motherless. My mind knew that a 99% survival rate meant that this wasn’t what would kill me, but my heart was impossible to convince.

I spoke to my oldest first. My brilliant, rational teen listened to the facts and determined that yes, this wasn’t great news, but it also would be OK. Next was my son, who was quiet, perhaps uncomfortable hearing his mom mention her breasts. Even so, he was easily convinced that the next few months might be bumpy but that all would end well.

We knew that the younger ones would require a very direct yet simple approach. Mommy has a booboo, the doctor needs to take it all out.

I knew the hardest conversation would be with my middle child. I dreaded disrupting her peace with this news. Her friend had lost her mother the year before to ovarian cancer, and while our illnesses were so different, I knew in her young mind she would connect them.

I didn’t know what I was doing when I had to talk to my children about my diagnosis, but since then, I have learned from experts that my gut instincts were mostly right. There were also some parts I could have handled better.

Tell each of your children individually

Dr. Shanthi Gowrinathan, a psychiatrist specializing in both women’s psychiatry and psycho-oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., says that it’s best to have a conversation with each child individually, as I did, since they will more than likely require different approaches to information. “Some may need time to process alone, while others may need to talk out their feelings or thoughts,” Gowrinathan says.

Strive for honesty

Gowrinathan says that honesty isn’t about telling the whole truth; rather it’s about being as honest as you can while factoring in your child’s age and need for information. I was completely up front with my 16-year-old — sharing my treatment plan, the survival statistics and the nitty-gritty of my diagnosis — whereas my 8-year-old was only aware that I would be having surgery and that it would take some time before I could squeeze her tightly again, because that was information she could understand and process.

Because of how heavily my diagnosis impacted me, I knew that I needed to share immediately rather than wait the two months until my surgery, even if there would be no outward signs of sickness. “It is important to remember that children pick up on emotional tone, and if they feel their parent is upset or unwell, telling them sooner rather than later is best," Gowrinathan says.

Find a therapist for your child

I didn’t do this immediately, and I wish that I had so that my children could talk to someone if they wanted to. CancerCare.org offers specific support for children who are affected by the cancer diagnosis of a loved one through their CancerCare for Kids program run by oncology social workers.

Make regular check-ins

Last year was rough for my family as we went through periods of separation while I had surgery, recovery and months of not being able to pick up my little ones or even take the kids to the beach or pool because I couldn’t get in with them. As much as I wish I could take an eraser to the whole time, it did happen, and I need to periodically talk about it with my children.

During treatment and after, Gowrinathan recommends having family meetings or individual check-ins to give children time to ask questions. If treatment is going to change your appearance or behavior, like how I wasn’t able to lift them or squeeze my kids, it’s important to let them know what to expect.

Keep it real

You and your child have an established rapport, and disclosing a diagnosis isn’t a time to become formal and clinical. Erin Parker, a single mom from Albany, N.Y., was recently diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer, and when she told her teenage daughter, the first thing she wanted to know was if she was going to die. Parker said, “Hell no!” because that was consistent with their relationship. In return, her daughter quipped, “Well Mom, it’s not like you need your boobs. It’s not like you have a boyfriend!” which put Parker at ease and allowed her daughter to experience the emotional release that accompanies laughter. Although this wouldn’t have been how my children reacted, it was important that Parker’s daughter was able to remain authentic in the midst of this heavy conversation.

Cancer is a scary word for people of any age, and knowing how to talk to our children about it honestly and without scaring them is an important skill. They need space to process your diagnosis safely and securely just as we do, and conveying to them that we are still available to them is essential. Even though I was terrified, I knew that my children needed me to be calm and comforting, and in doing so, I was able to calm myself as well.

This article was originally published on March 2, 2023 and has been updated.