Sunday 25 February 2018

'Telling your kids about cancer is hard to do'

A cancer diagnosis is always a shock, and for many people another emotional challenge also surfaces - how to share the news with their children. Our reporter talks to families who believe informing your kids is the best way to help them cope

Caitriona Plunckett with her husband Conor and children Corinne (10) and Gavin (7). Photo:Mark Condren
Caitriona Plunckett with her husband Conor and children Corinne (10) and Gavin (7). Photo:Mark Condren
Alison Coyle on her wedding day with her mum Syliva who passed away this year

Arlene Harris

Every parent instinctively wants to protect their children - from sickness, from injury, from bullies and ultimately from anything in life which would make them feel either physically, mentally or emotionally hurt.

But there are some things in life that we just can't shield them from - serious illness being one.

October is 'Cups Against Cancer' month where the Irish Cancer Society is urging people to hold a coffee morning in aid of breast cancer research and to raise awareness from the disease.

One in nine women in Ireland will develop the disease each year and while many will survive and live to tell the tale, some may not make it - and for those who have children, this huge loss in their young lives will be very hard to bear.

Alison Coyle on her wedding day with her mum Syliva who passed away this year
Alison Coyle on her wedding day with her mum Syliva who passed away this year

Matthew O'Brien lost his wife Sarah to breast cancer two years ago. He was consumed by grief at the time of her death, but says his over-riding concern was for his three children who couldn't comprehend where their mother was and why she wasn't coming back.

"Unfortunately when Sarah was diagnosed, her cancer was quite advanced and had spread to the lymph nodes," he says. "While she was ill and having treatment, the children were being looked after by family and we both tried to reassure them that things were going to be ok - but as Sarah's condition worsened, it became obvious that this wasn't going to be the case.

"We decided we would talk to them together while Sarah still had enough strength for it and to be honest it was heart-breaking. Our eldest was 10 at the time and he was utterly in bits, while the other two, at six and four couldn't understand what we were telling them - and even though they knew that Mammy was going to heaven, they didn't really comprehend what that meant."

Matthew's eldest son bore the brunt of his mother's demise as he was keenly aware of what was happening and after Sarah died, he went through a very tough time both at home and at school.

"When we finally lost Sarah, my eldest had a complete meltdown and hid away in his room for days," the father of three recalls. "He wouldn't eat and wouldn't talk to anyone and I was so worried about him.

"So I arranged for the three of them to attend a bereavement counselling course and while initially, he was reluctant to go, as the months went by, I could see my beautiful sunny son return. Telling children about cancer is a very hard thing to do and dealing with death is even harder, but I really believe that they should be kept informed about what is going on because no matter how hard you try to hide things, they always know that something is wrong and if it is not being discussed, they will have to deal with it on their own and that is something no child should have to do."

Caitriona Plunkett agrees and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2016, she and her husband Conor made the decision to inform their children - Corinne (10) and Gavin (7) straight away.

"I check my breasts regularly and found a lump in the right one last year," says the Dublin woman. "Corrine was making her communion so although I knew it didn't feel right, I decided to wait until that was over before getting it checked out. I was referred immediately for a triple assessment and five days after that I went in for the results.

"I knew straight away there was something wrong as the nurse told me to bring someone with me when I went back to the hospital. Sure enough, they said I had breast cancer."

Fortunately Caitriona had been diagnosed early and she and Conor decided to inform the children of her illness.

"I was told that it was highly likely that I would be ok after my chemotherapy, so once a treatment plan was in place, we told the kids I had cancer.

"I said I would lose my hair and that I would be feeling very tired and ill for a while but once it was over, I would be myself again. The hospital had given me some comics for them which explained what cancer was and how the treatment zapped all the bad cells and this was great as it really helped them to understand.

"Of course they were upset at first, but we have never kept anything from them so as far as Conor and I were concerned, cancer was another topic which they needed answers on."

At every stage of her illness, Caitriona kept her children informed and says this really helped them to cope with their feelings which, at times, were 'all over the place'.

"By promising the children that we would be honest, they really felt secure knowing that we weren't hiding anything and there would be nothing coming up that they weren't prepared for," she says. "We told them what we knew, in child-friendly terms, and fortunately we were very lucky to be able to say with complete faith that everything would be fine.

"They could tell from our faces that we weren't worried and even though I told them that I would lose my hair and was very scared about what was ahead of me, they were reassured that I would get through it.

"I don't think people give children enough credit for understanding and coping with things and in my opinion, I believe that telling them what's happening right from the start, will help them to deal with whatever the illness brings."

Claire Lalor is a counsellor and art psychotherapist who specialises in helping children to cope with trauma.

She agrees with Caitriona and says it is vitally important for everyone to be informed about what is going on, but says keeping the information age-appropriate is crucial.

"I really believe children should be kept in the loop when a parent is ill," she says. "They will be able to sense that something is wrong so parents should try to inform them gently about the situation. Obviously the level of information they receive will vary depending on their age.

"If they are very young, parents can just explain that Mammy or Daddy is sick and will be going to hospital for a while. And if they are older or the illness is more serious, they can be given a bit more information, particularly if the parent is going to lose their hair or will be very tired and sick for quite some time."

And while the expert says children should be reassured that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes the news is not good and in this instance, they will also need to be prepared for the worst.

"Letting a child know that their parent is going to die is never going to be easy," she says. "My advice would be to ease them into it gently and make sure to get as much family time as possible - bring them into the hospital, let them make cards, take photos and videos with mum or dad and just try and keep things as happy as possible. Of course this will be extremely difficult for everyone concerned, but it is important.

"Losing a loved-one is very hard, particularly for a child, but there are plenty of support groups available and I would really encourage people to avail of all the help they can get. Of course, while the family is grieving, they may not want to talk to anyone, but I would encourage them to reach out at some point - there are bereavement groups for children, but it's important for the parent to attend as well as they will be suffering too."

No matter how old you are, losing a loved one is heart-breaking and losing a parent always makes you feel vulnerable and lost - whether you are a child or an adult.

Alison Coyle lost her mother in March of this year and although she is 33 years old, says the gap she left behind is enormous.

"It doesn't matter what age you are (when you lose a parent), the pain is the same," she says. "Mum was 63 when she died and I felt a huge part of me was missing, I felt numb at the start and the funeral is still a blur. I then felt angry towards the disease, the pain she went through and frustrated that we couldn't do anything to heal her.

"I have a baby boy (Alfred) who was 9-months old-when mum died so he actually got me up in the morning and helped me see that there were good things in life too. And my husband John was a great support having lost his dad to cancer when he was one - so he totally understood what I was going through."

This October the Irish Cancer Society are asking members of the public to hold a 'Cups Against Cancer' coffee morning and support the fight against breast cancer. Money raised will fund breast cancer research and free services to support breast cancer patients and their families. So get your cups out and gather your bosom buddies together and host a 'Cups Against Cancer' coffee morning.

* For more information see cancer.ie/cupsagainstcancer

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