Republish this article
28th April 2016

Telling the kids you’ve got cancer

What happens when you’re a parent and you get a cancer diagnosis? Explaining it to the kids will probably be the hardest part of the journey.

That was certainly the case for Katherine Simpson-Jacobs, who had to come to terms with her early-stage breast cancer diagnosis in 2013 as well as work out how on earth to tell her two young girls, who were aged six and four at the time.

The secondary school teacher had noticed a physical change in her breast but hadn’t thought much of it, as there was no lump and she felt fine. But after six months, she finally decided to get it checked out and the doctor referred her for a mammogram, a type of x-ray that looks for very early breast cancers.

“When they saw the mammogram they were concerned so I had a biopsy of the area and that was when it came back as cancerous,” she recalls. “People think you need to have a lump,” says Katherine, who’s keen to point out that any kind of change to the breast can prompt an investigation.

The prospect of upcoming surgery and radiotherapy, which zaps cancer cells with high-energy radiation, was overwhelming enough without having to explain it all to her two daughters. Katherine didn’t know where to begin, so she asked her oncology team if there were any written resources that might help. The only book they recommended was about a woman going through chemotherapy and losing all of her hair. As Katherine wasn’t having chemotherapy, she felt the story would confuse her girls.

When she couldn’t find any other books or leaflets to help explain her specific situation to her kids in a child-friendly way, Katherine came up with the analogy of an apple with a bruise that has to be cut out to save the rest of the fruit. Her daughters accepted and understood this explanation. That’s when Katherine decided to write a book called What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer, which uses the apple analogy. “I just felt there was a really gap and I wanted to help other people,” she comments.

What if your kids are older?

Another author and mum of two, Dr Ingrid Wassenaar, recently found herself in a similar situation when she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer back in February. “I understand exactly why Katherine wanted to write the book,” she tells This Is Medtech.

“I was shown a book that wasn’t suitable for me as it was about the worst-case scenario and it wasn’t age-appropriate for my kids, who are a bit older,” says Ingrid, who had surgery to remove a lump and will soon begin radiotherapy. “In my experience it was best to talk to my kids in a contained way ‒ that I’d found a lump ‒ so that they weren’t overwhelmed. They can understand what a lump is.”

But what if there’s no lump? The challenge, says Ingrid, is that there’s such a wide range of diagnoses and treatment scenarios that it would be almost impossible to cover in one book. “What’s really needed is a finely tuned set of books for different diagnoses and ages,” she suggests.