“I Can’t Promise That I’ll Get Better”. Telling My Children I Have Cancer.

Larissa Dann

My first thought is my children, when my GP discovers a suspicious lump in my breast.

If I have cancer, what will happen to my 11 year-old, on the cusp of her tricky teens, and all the scary ‘firsts’ that adolescence brings? Or my 19 year-old, as he dips his toe into his adult life, before plunging into the rapids of responsibility, study, work and relationships?

I knew what it was to lose the care and support of a mother. The cruelty of Alzheimer’s had recently rendered my capable mother incapable. There is no age where we are ‘ready’ to lose our mothers. However, my children were, I felt, at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives.

Today, as I write this reflection, I am grateful to be in remission. At the time of diagnosis however, some years ago, my future was uncertain.

My Mum

My detection of breast cancer triggers a forgotten teenage memory.

One evening my mother calls my sister and me (both in our mid-teens) to the kitchen. Mum seems a tad angrier than usual, less patient, more on edge. At the time she owns a shop for which she bakes goods.

“OK. You two are going to have to cook these sweets tonight. I need to know that you can make everything I make for the shop.”

Puzzled, we look at each other. Why the urgency, why tonight? Mum hands us the recipes and we get to work. We laboriously paint sheets of fillo pastry with golden butter for a baklava. We make Florentines, placing a contrast of colours - glace fruit and nuts - upon the shiny surface of dark melted chocolate. The fragrance of baked pastry and heated sugar permeates the kitchen.

Once, those smells were safe, a measure of our security with Mum. Tonight, though, we are shaken. What is happening? Why are we cooking late into a school night? When we finish, Mum gives us a distracted hug as she sees us off to bed.

She does not ask us to make those goods again, and she never mentions our late night of cooking.

That is, until months later, when Mum and I are having a general natter. Out of the blue, she says,

“You know when I made you cook for the shop? I’d been to the doctor and they’d found some lumps in my breast, so they needed to operate to check them out. I had to know that you kids could look after making the sweets for the shop, in case the results were positive.”

I looked at Mum, silent for some seconds.

“Why didn’t you tell us? We’d have had an explanation for why you were so tense, why we had to do the cooking so suddenly. We could have helped more. Why didn’t you just say?”

“I didn’t want to worry you”, she replies.

I walk away, bewildered. And hurt. Why didn’t Mum tell us? We would have supported her, and been more understanding of her terse moods.

Didn’t she trust us?

What if the result had been positive and she did have cancer? She’d have to tell us then, and it would be worse because there would have been no warning.


Now, ironically, I am the Mum with the lump in my breast.

How will I approach my children with this news?

By not sharing her concerns with her teenage children, my mother’s attempt to protect us had backfired, causing hurt and dismay.

While I love my mother, I am not my mother. I do not want to inflict a similar memory of pain and confusion on my children.

Guided By An Unlikely Source

I am an open book. A tell-all, Too-Much-Information type of person. I am curious, I ask questions, and I love learning.

So, after my son’s birth, I grasped an opportunity to attend a parenting course.

My world turned, and I chose to deviate markedly from the way I was raised. I learned words to avoid when communicating with my children, and how to really listen, how to talk without blame, putdowns, or praise. I discovered that punishments and rewards have life-long negative consequences on children, and parent-child relationships. Instead, I aimed to implement problem solving when there is conflict. I saw my babies, my children, as young people that didn’t ‘misbehave’, but simply behaved to meet a need.

With my diagnosis of cancer, my years of intentional, peaceful parenting skills will be put to the test.

Over the course of my diagnosis, my treatment, and into remission, I find that I am grateful for the skills I learned in one eight-week parent communication course.

How Will I Tell My Children I Have Cancer?

Each of my children has already had difficult terrain to negotiate over their short lives. One major obstacle was my husband’s trek with cancer some years previously. Fortunately he was able to walk clear from this unwelcome path. However, his diagnosis and treatment cast an ongoing, yet often unnoticed, shadow over our family.

Now my family will be rocked again by cancer in a parent. Me.

Given my experience as a teenager, as a mother and parent educator, I aim to be conscious and intentional in the words I use to break the news to my children. I prepare myself to respond to the distress I expect my children will experience.

Principles to Guide My Words

My approach to my children, especially at this time of the unknown, is informed by four principles – pillars that scaffold my relationship with my children.

I decide:

  • to respect my children by sharing with them my concerns, as my diagnosis will impact their lives as much as mine. I will listen empathically to their responses, their fear.
  • to include my children in whatever is happening to me, any decisions we may have to make as a family. This, to me, epitomises respect.
  • to trust my children with my vulnerability, because I know they care.
  • that they are competent to handle the news – because they have coping skills, support, and resilience.

I need to be open and honest – about my feelings, and theirs. After all, my children are unavoidably by my side on this journey. I will not minimise their fear, or placate them with untruths.

I cannot pretend that nothing is wrong when clearly, so much is wrong.

As I prepare myself to inform my children, I discover one of the most difficult aspects of this diagnosis.

I cannot assure my children that I will be alright. Because I might not be.

An essential component of our conversation will involve listening to my children, validating their emotions, and perhaps helping them find a way to live with their concerns.

Our Conversations

“The doctor has found a lump in my breast, but she’s confident it’s nothing to worry about. I’m having a scan today, and we’ll know the results next week”.

Neither child knows why a lump should be of concern.

“A lump in a breast can mean many things, and sometimes it could be cancer, so I need to get it checked out.”

I struggle to say the ‘C’ word.

Each child is shocked. All of us take comfort in my GP’s initial belief.

On the day I am diagnosed, I seek support first from adults - my husband, and a friend who has had breast cancer. This gives me some headspace to then share the news with my children.

I speak with my son and daughter separately. I try to prepare myself, mentally and emotionally, to relay the diagnosis. I aim to be open and honest about my feelings, and to share the facts as I know them. And then to listen, to truly hear their feelings, their thoughts. To say out loud my best guess at what they feel but cannot say.

What might their emotions include? Scared (for me, and for themselves)? Sad? Helpless? Supportive?

My young adult son

I phone my young man. He is in a shopping mall, and walks outside, telling me that he is leaning against the wall in the sun.

“I have cancer” I burst out. So much for my careful preparation!

He cries. Unashamed, in a public place, he cries. I weep with him. This is the first time I’ve truly felt the shock of the diagnosis.

“No, you can’t. You can’t have cancer!”

In a connected silence, we cry some more. We understand each other’s pain.

“It’s scary”, I say. “We just don’t know what it all means”.

I tell him as much as I know, I explain as much as I understand.

“Do you have someone to talk to?” I ask.

“Yes, I’m here with my girlfriend. She knows that you were getting back to me today.”

We hang up, and I am comforted that my son has someone with whom he feels safe. He is making his own life. I feel strangely calm and grateful, because I found again that deep bond between my son and me, borne of a lifetime of shared adversity and understanding.

My tween daughter

Now I am picking up my daughter from school. The day is deceptive – sunny, yet cool. Other parents talk about what they are having for dinner. I move to a quiet spot, wrapping my diagnosis around me. My daughter emerges from her classroom, and I notice she is cross. I think it is because she is worried about what I am about to tell her. We walk, hand-in-hand, to the car, and I am moved to see that this child is almost as tall as me.

I say to her that, if she likes, I can sit in the back of the car with her to talk.

I twist around to look at her, escaped grains of sand from recent beach days shifting on the blue seat. Before I open my mouth, my daughter says,

“Mummy. I know you have something important to tell me. But can I quickly tell you about my terrible day first? I want to be able to concentrate on what you say, and I won’t be able to until I get my stuff out of me by talking to you.”

I am a slightly taken aback. My daughter is one of the most empathic people I know. Then I realise she is not selfish, but self-aware. She wants to be there for me, but recognises that she is too churned up by her day at school to truly hear and take in my news.

I understand. I do not belittle my child’s experience – because her feelings are as important to her as mine are to me.

“You’re concerned that if you don’t let everything out about your bad day, then you won’t have room to hear what I have to say.”

She nods emphatically.

I take an inner breath of calm, sit back, and listen to her tale of woe.

She stops talking, then says,

‘Thank you for listening, Mummy.” And reaches out to hug me.

“Now, can you tell me your news?”

“The doctor says I have cancer, and I have to have an operation.”

My daughter and I weep together, my arms encircling this human gift, my lips pressed against her pale, silken-soft hair. I breathe in her after-school essence, committing to memory this moment.

“Will you be alright?” she asks.

I am honest. Gently.

I do not reassure her, because I cannot know the answer.

I do not promise, when the future is unknown.

“I don’t know”, I say. “There is hope, because we caught the cancer early. But it’s not a very nice cancer, it’s aggressive. So I can’t say, darling. No one knows.”

We sob together some more.

Here we are, mother and daughter, in the back seat of our car. Other parents drive out to a tomorrow with their children. In our little world, in that small space, we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow, or how long that tomorrow might last.

Next in this series:


First published 18th October 2018 


© Larissa Dann 2018