Personal stories

I didn’t tell my son I had cancer

Posted by Guest Author on 10 March 2021

You’ve been diagnosed with cancer. The big question is… do you tell your kids?

As parents we naturally want to protect our children from anything that might hurt, upset or worry them. It’s part of a parent’s make-up. If we could wrap our children in bubble wrap and implant a tracking chip in them, we would. But the reality of life is that we can’t do that and children will experience hurt, upset and anxiety in their childhoods, despite our best efforts.

So, what do you do when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer? For Clare, a single mother of Jack aged nine, she chose not to tell her son that she’d been diagnosed with cancer or that she was having surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and Herceptin.

Clare’s diagnosis

Clare was diagnosed with breast cancer last year mid-lockdown. She’d had an itch for a while and got it checked out by the GP who told her it was nothing to worry about. Having private medical insurance through her full-time job, she chose to have an appointment with a breast surgeon with a view to possibly having a small procedure to cure the situation. So, after a delay of a couple of months (because she is a busy single working mum) she went to see the surgeon in May.

The surgeon agreed with the GP that there was nothing to worry about but just as she was leaving and giving her authorisation code for the consultation, the Surgeon noticed that she was eligible for a mammogram. It made sense for her to have the mammogram then and there. So, she did. And, in the other breast to the itch, they found something suspicious. Following an on-the-spot biopsy, she was told that it was 99% likely to be breast cancer. A lot can happen in an hour. Alone, driving home, and her only thoughts were this is going to ruin Jack’s childhood.  

Her son was due back home the following day after staying with his Dad and all she could think about was how this was going to impact him and how she could keep it from him. 

A bit of background…

You see, Clare and her son have had their fair share of turmoil, Jack started out living in Spain, with Clare, her then husband and his two daughters (who they saw a lot and lived close enough for Jack to have a very good relationship with). But five years ago, Clare divorced her husband and she and Jack moved back to the UK with nothing. It’s taken a while, but over the past five years they’ve made a comfortable home, found a good school and football club for Jack, made friends and live close to Clare’s supportive siblings and friends.

Jack’s Dad moved back to the area a few years after and Clare now shares custody with him on a 70:30 basis. But it’s been tough and the last thing that Clare wanted was to put her son through more turmoil. There are not many things worse for a child than a parent going through cancer. The guilt kicked in and Clare couldn’t bring herself to tell Jack that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer – especially when it was a sunny VE bank holiday in the middle of a lockdown and they’d been looking forward to celebrating (at a social distance) with neighbours.

So she didn’t tell him. It wasn’t the right time and she didn’t want to upset him.

The day of the operation

Then the day of her operation came along. By this time, it had been agreed that Jack’s Dad would share Jack on a 50:50 basis while Clare was going through treatment and he’d agreed not to tell Jack about the cancer. She went in for her operation which was a wide local excision and breast reduction.

She told Jack that she was just going to have a breast reduction and that he didn’t need to worry. In fact, he was more embarrassed than anything else so that worked, no more questions asked. By the time Jack was home from his Dad’s, Clare was at home recovering well. Jack had no idea that his Mum had just had the cancer cut out of her breast.

Going through treatment

She was originally told that following surgery she’d have radiotherapy. So the plan was to have the radiotherapy while Jack was at school. There would be no need to tell Jack about the radiotherapy as he wouldn’t even know that she was going to the hospital every day. However, once the pathology results came back after surgery it transpired that her breast cancer was triple positive and she’d in fact need chemotherapy. Clare cried. She really didn’t want to put Jack through cancer with her – she realised that she really didn’t want him to know that she had cancer. She managed up to this point in not having to tell him and now that she was faced with having to tell him (who can hide chemo after all?) she knew that it was her priority not to tell him. She wanted him to be happy and carefree and not have to worry about his mum – especially when the whole world was going through a global pandemic.

But Clare’s determination to protect her son from cancer meant that she had to find a way. She used the cold cap which meant that she kept most of her hairline so although it looked different and she lost all of her length, what nine-year-old football-mad boy is going to notice that. And as for her eyebrows and eyelashes – she made sure she applied eyeliner and did her brows before Jack woke up every day.

She also arranged with Jack’s Dad that Jack would stay with him from the day of chemo and for the first week after chemo. This allowed Clare the week following chemo – you know, the really tough week – to recover on her own at home. She was hit badly by the chemo and had to call an ambulance a couple of times. It’s hard for anyone who lives on their own to go through chemotherapy but through a lockdown whilst having to shield was very tough. 

Jack came home for week 2 post-chemo. This week was easier than week one, but Clare still didn’t feel great. However, Clare says that having the determination to shield Jack from her cancer made her get up and about with Jack, and she’s sure that it helped her to recover.

So by week 3 post-chemo she was well enough to be the active single mum she’s used to being. And Jack didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She told Jack that she had some bad cells that needed this horrible medicine to get rid of them, and her hair would be a little crazy for a while – and they laughed as he said her hair has always been crazy in the mornings anyhow. So he knew there would be times where she was tired and wasn’t feeling well. And then chemo was over and radiotherapy began – and lockdown number 3 happened but she managed to make it work with him still not knowing.

Being at a private hospital, meant she was able to choose the early slot each day and was in and out within 20 minutes – some days she took Jack and he stayed in the car playing Fifa with the receptionist watching over him. Clare took a picture of the radio machine so he knew something, although no words were used, his only concerns was if it hurt and laughing that he couldn’t possibly stay still for that long. Also, all Herceptin was arranged to be administered at home while Jack was at school – so now he’s being homeschooled, they are ‘vitamin injections’. It’s important to know that at all points he was able to ask any questions or speak to either Clare or his Dad, but he didn’t. He really missed all the worse of it!

Why did Clare decide not to tell her son?

So why did Clare decide not to tell Jack that she had cancer? Well to be honest it wasn’t a deliberate decision to start with. It was more a case of not finding the right time coupled with the guilt of putting him through the turmoil that it was bound to bring. And then, after a while, having not told him to start with, coupled with Clare’s own memories of her own difficult childhood, it didn’t seem right to tell him. It was at this point that it became a deliberate choice not to tell him, and to actively keep it from him.

She wanted to protect him. She had the opportunity to wrap him in that bubble wrap (albeit just for a little while). He was nine, he’d been through a tough time with the divorce and move back from Spain a few years earlier and was finally settled; the world was living in a global pandemic with lockdowns on then off then on again. The guilt that Clare felt, is what made her keep it from him.  Clare, herself didn’t have a great childhood, so this was the last thing she wanted for him. 

So now that treatment is over (other than 6 more Herceptin injections) Clare is starting to feel physically better and she’s back at work. Does she regret not telling Jack? No, she’s certain it was the right thing for her to do in her circumstances. Clare knows that everyone is different and deals with these sorts of things differently. She knows that a big part of not telling Jack was that the circumstances allowed her to not tell him. If Jack lived with her 100% of the time then she thinks she probably would have had to tell him. But her view is that the circumstances meant that she didn’t have to tell him.

Will she ever tell him?

Will she ever tell Jack that she had cancer the year of COVID? Yes, she will. In fact, she is planning on using this blog and sharing her story so he can read it when he’s older.

March 2021


Claire diagnosed in 2016
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