Like Kate, I Had To Learn How To Speak To My Children About My Cancer

Podcaster Emma Campbell on how to talk to kids about cancer

Author Emma Campbell

by Emma Campbell |
Updated on

I and so many other women I know, want to give Kate Middleton the biggest of hugs. We want her to know that we understand what she’s going through and to echo her own words back by telling her - ‘you are not alone.’

A cancer diagnosis comes and, in an instant, life changes forever. And then, the hardest part. Telling our children. We feel our hearts break. This is wrong on every level. George, Charlotte and Louis. Ten, eight and six years old. What to say? How to say it? Where’s the script? Help…

My eldest son Jake, was nearly seven when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2010. His triplet siblings just six months old. Cancer hadn’t touched my world til then. I had no community to lean on, no social media accounts to follow for guidance or comfort. I googled. I ordered a book, ‘Mummy’s lump’ and sat with Jake in our kitchen. Dressed in his Spiderman outfit, bright as a button, fidgety, chatty I turned the pages of the book with him by my side. ‘Mummy’s got a lump too,’ I said as we came to the end of the beautifully portrayed story. ‘But the doctor is going to give me some really strong medicine to make it go away - so strong that its going to make my hair fall out so I might look a bit silly for a while.’ ‘Okay, Mummy,’ my boy said reaching for the biscuit tin. ‘What’s for dinner?’

Podcaster Emma Campbell
Podcaster Emma Campbell ©Handout

I didn’t use the word ‘cancer’ back then. I was too frightened of the word myself to introduce it into my darling boy’s vocabulary though over time of course, he came to understand what it meant. Four years on, the devastation of a secondary diagnosis and another conversation needed - this time with the stakes so much higher than before. Jake was eleven.

‘Have you got cancer again, Mum?’ Jake asked as I fumbled for the words to say. ‘Yes, darling. But it’s going to be okay, I’m going to be okay.’ Again, the cracks in my heart deepening because how could I know if that was true?

The triplets had just turned five. Feral and fabulous, hard to pin down. Did I really need to say anything? Couldn’t I just pretend it was business as usual or at least play down the gravity of what was happening?

‘Mummy’s a bit poorly at the moment and needs some treatment at the hospital.’ I chose to mask so much. I wore a smile, greeted them from school after hours spent asleep on the sofa. I lived with fingers crossed that life would one day feel safe again, for all of us. Diagnosis number three in 2019 and the conversation was more ‘adult’. Jake at fifteen was shaken but calm and comforting as I struggled to hold my emotions in check. Ella, Louis and Theo were nine and lived so successfully in the present that they seemed relatively unscathed but their anxiety came out in other ways. I leant on school mums, neighbours, family and friends. I found Instagram and observed the way others were living with cancer. I found solace and huge comfort from seeing endless examples of resilience which made accessing my own that bit easier.

There is no rule book but I’m thankful that the conversations, resources and support seem so much easier to access than they did all those years ago.

I hope Kate knows where to look for stories of hope. I hope she finds her safe space to talk, cry, rage and weep. There are so many of us navigating a life with cancer. Cancer can seem like a big, black boulder that has the power to block out the sun. Over time and with theright love and support and awareness of our own strength and capacity to overcome, we find ways to shrink that boulder and let the light back in. And our kids? Our kids will be okay. If they feel our love, have the anchors of routine, familiarity along with space to talk and be heard, they really will be okay.

@limitless_em on Instagram

Host of the podcast Open with Emma Campbell

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