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How to tell my 4 yo son that mummy is sick (cancer)

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#1 MummyHILI

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:08 AM

So some of you may have read my recent thread about my diagnosis of breast cancer.

I got the final results yesterday and it is quite an aggressive stage 3 cancer that thankfully has not spread beyond the breast and lymph node.

I will start chemo in the next few days.

I have a 4 yo DS (and a 1 yo DS), does anybody have any tips of how I can explain to my 4yo what is happening to mummy and to reassure him that I will be OK.

I plan on explaining it to him as things happen in simple terms so as to not overwhelm him. Like this morning I told him 'mummy is going yo get her haircut short, like X', so he doesn't freak out when he comes home to find my very long hair short.

So how did you explain that you were unwell to your young child/children?

#2 mumofsky

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:20 AM

MummyHILI I'm so so sorry. I'm so glad it hasn't spread and I'll be thinking of you. You must be terrified.

With such a young child I would be keeping it simple. Maybe read some books about going to the doctor and being unwell- you can then lead into "remember how Jane was sick and went to the doctor in the book? Mummy is unwell too right now. I might visit the doctor lots - sometimes you can come and sometimes you'll stay with (whoever). Sometimes mummy might be very tired, or xyz..." just very simple 4 year old descriptions to enable him to process it in his 4 year old way.

There's no real value in using the word cancer at his age, I lost a very close friend to cancer a couple of years ago and I saw that once her kids disclosed the cancer to friends, sometimes the friends could scare them a bit with questions and stories of their own.

I hope chemo goes as well as it possibly can, and that you get some good news when it's all finished. xx

#3 HoneyMurcott

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:49 AM

Short, factual and age appropriate answers are best. We told the children I had bad cells growing in my body and for some reason my good cells couldn't get rid of them. To get rid of them my doctor was going to remove my breast and then I was going to have chemotherapy and radiation. We told them that the chemo therapy was going to track down any bad cells left and kill them but unfortunately it was also going to hurt some of my good cells so I'd lose my hair and be sick sometimes. The radiation was explained in similar terms.

You don't need to cover it in great detail. Your child will return to you again and again with more questions as he sees you travel through treatment. Answer the questions when they come. My children were 7, 6 and 4 when I was diagnosed. They asked beautiful, thoughtful and sometimes funny questions. They would ask at the strangest times - like in the checkout queue. "So when will your hair be back?" And I'd say "By Christmas time". And then they'd immediately move on to "So can I have a doughnut?" At this age they live in the moment. They will believe what you say and will not ruminate on the possibilities of your cancer. I always say our children were the 'perfect age' for me to be sick because they did not worry too much.

I disagree with not calling it cancer because that's what it is. And your child needs to know that's what you have. Nothing makes a word scarier for a child than not using it! And your child will hear you and everyone else talking about it so they must know and be comfortable with it.

There are some really good books available to read to your child. We have three and the children still - 2 years post diagnosis - read them or ask for them to be read to them. They are an important reference for the children and part of feeling that they are not alone. The children's teachers read them to their class so their friends also understood why I was wearing scarves. I'll go find them and post the titles.

#4 ~Bob~

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:50 AM


Edited by ~Bob~, 01 June 2016 - 10:48 AM.

#5 HoneyMurcott

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:57 AM

"My mum has breast cancer - a familiy's cancer journey" by Lisa Sewards and Harrison Sewards

"The goodbye cancer garden" by Janna Matthies

"My mum's got cancer" by Lucy Blunt

For your boys I'd recommend them in this order. The final title may be a bit too detailed for a 4 year old.

#6 Pompol

Posted 01 June 2016 - 08:58 AM

Hi OP, I'm so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Sending best wishes for your treatment.

Our friend bought this book for her 6 year old when she was diagnosed and she raves about it.


#7 Hattie

Posted 01 June 2016 - 09:30 AM

Mummy HILI, your story is very similar to mine. My son was 4 years old when I was diagnosed with aggressive stage 3 breast cancer in 2012. I had a mastectomy and lymph node removal, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I am now 3.5 years in remission, still on hormone therapy.

Firstly, without being disrespectful to PPs, having a grandparent diagnosed with cancer is very different to having a parent diagnosed. At four years old, a child is emotionally and physically tethered to his/her mother in a way that is simply not the same as a grandparent relationship.

I also absolutely do not agree with any suggestion to not tell your 4 year old what's going on. You must tell him, in an age appropriate way, because things are going to change in your world and therefore his. Your hair will fall out, you will likely be sick and exhausted at various points, and he will notice.

My route from diagnosis to surgery was very quick (6 days) so we didn't have a lot of time to think about how we would tell our son. In the end, we told him that Mummy had germs inside her breast that were called cancer, and there were three things the doctor needed to do to get rid of them - cut off my breast, give me medicine called chemo, and then shine a light on me called radiation. After surgery I showed him my wound when I got home, and he asked a lot of questions which I answered in an age appropriate way. Only a few weeks later we realised that using the word 'germ' wasn't the best idea, when he saw an ad for hand sanitiser on tv and suggested I could use that to get rid of my cancer germs. So you need to be careful about words and associations!

We never, ever spoke about the nitty gritty of my diagnosis (50/50 survival within 5 years) or the details of my treatment in front of our son, but it is amazing how perceptive children are. One night during chemo when I was putting him to bed, he asked me straight out if I was going to die. I wasn't prepared for the question and didn't give him the best answer, I said 'no of course not' and then changed the subject, which in hindsight I regretted because I think he was trying to open up an opportunity to have a conversation about death and dying and I didn't pick up on it. So, another piece of advice would be to be prepared for such conversations, because 4 year olds are both perceptive and curious.

My son is now 8 and will very rarely mention my cancer. Sometimes if there's a story in the news he will say 'is that the same cancer you had Mum', and we will talk factually about the different types of cancer. I also do a fair bit of speaking at cancer charity events, and he knows that I am doing this to raise money for research so that one day there might be no cancer at all.

OP, I wish you all the very best. No doubt you are in for a rough ride, but those of us who've been there are here for you. Please feel free to PM me about anything, I am happy to answer any question or just to chat about what a sh*tty hand you've been dealt.

Best wishes,

#8 JRA

Posted 01 June 2016 - 09:40 AM

Hattie and HoneyMurcott said it all I think.

I was lucky I did  not need to explain it to DS as he was only 6 mths old. It was one of the benefits of only having a baby when dealing with chemo etc

Reading Hattie's post, before she even commented about not using "Germs" I was going to say the same.

The books that the people have mentioned, I have heard others talk about as well.  They may help.

As they said, kids at that age are very smart, this is his mother, the most important person in the world, so he does deserve honesty, in 4yo terms.

Good luck, and please we are all here to help and chat.

#9 toomuchmess

Posted 01 June 2016 - 09:50 AM

MummyHILI sorry you are dealing with this.
I think Hattie has covered everything well.
I know in my case it has helped for my boys to come with me to some of my oncology appointments to see what happens. My chemo nurses are amazeballs. My boys get milk and cookies/cakes/sandwiches/chocolates and the nurses fuss over them and save them things like woolies giveaway cards stickers dominoes etc. They go for trips around the hospital with the nurses if they have to deliver blood or collect files etc. So they definitely dont have a negative connection with going there. I hope your experience for your son can be similar - just ask about it before you take him though, i know some are quite strict.

#10 ECsMum

Posted 01 June 2016 - 10:03 AM

When my mum told my little sister about her breast cancer - she didn't use the word cancer - can't remember the words she did use - but when mum finished telling her she said 'oh have you got  cancer?' Kids are so perceptive and know way more than we give them credit for - So I wouldn't be holding back on using the word 'cancer'.

All the best on your journey!

#11 MooGuru

Posted 01 June 2016 - 10:28 AM

I haven't been in your position but we went through brain cancer with DS. It isn't the same so please disregard this if you feel it isn't helpful.

We were open and honest with DH's children and their siblings with his ex (one of whom is 3-4). We didn't explain it in too much detail but it was a very drastic change for them seeing him in hospital with tubes - actually the youngest at first had a fascination with wanting to try to unscrew or screw the Central/hickmans line as she was just learning how to put a screw lid on/off.

We had lots of people tell us to sugar coat or hide it which undermined our confidence that we were doing what we thought was the right thing in being honest and upfront (but age appropriate).
We spoke about it retrospectively with the social worker who told us that our openness was part of the reason the other kids handled it so well. She said that they see lots of situations where people aren't open with the kids and try to hide it as much as possible but the kids see the physical changes,  in some instances they can smell and feel them. Then they hear hushed conversations where people may be upset but pretend not to be when they see the child. So all of their senses are telling them something is wrong but they don't know what. She said those children may have anxiety and can become very clingy not allowing the person who is sick out of their sight because they don't know what will happen if they do.

Oh and I'm not sure if you will have one but the central/hickmans line was of big interest including "BUT I WANT ONE!" tantrums. You can get stuffed toys called chemo ducks which have central/hickmans lines and a bandana on their head.

I wish you well and have my fingers crossed for you.

#12 ~Bob~

Posted 01 June 2016 - 10:48 AM

 Hattie, on 01 June 2016 - 09:30 AM, said:

Firstly, without being disrespectful to PPs, having a grandparent diagnosed with cancer is very different to having a parent diagnosed.

I didn't mean to offend. I will delete my post.

#13 JRA

Posted 01 June 2016 - 10:48 AM

It is an interesting comment about taking him to chemo. I must admit most adults even think the process of receiving chemo is horrendous, in fact most people sit their reading, talking  etc while receiving it. It may take some of the shock away.

#14 karkat

Posted 01 June 2016 - 11:11 AM

My DH was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer when my DD were 3 yr old and 18 months respectively. Different cancer and at that stage I was very much the primary carer as DH works long hours so feel free to disregard, but DH never spoke to the girls about his diagnosis I had to do all of it.

I also didn't use the word cancer, such a broad word with such a range of prognosis.  I told them that daddy had a sore tummy that was making him sick and the Dr was going to cut out the bit that was making him sick. Then when results came back with multiple lymph nodes involved that he was going to have some special medicine that would make sure the stuff making him sick didn't come back,but that the medicine might make him feel tired, sick etc. Due to logistics the girls spent a bit of time at chemo but spent more time across the road at the park (they were actually sad when DH finished treatment as there was less trips to the park).

DH has now been in remission for 4 yrs and gets very stressed at his 6 monthly ct and bloods and I still use the same way of talking about it. Daddy is worried that the sick part of his tummy is coming back.

My eldest is now 7.5 and she knows a bit more detail but I've only recently (yesterday actually, when she asked about relay for life) used the word cancer to describe what DH had. I figure at her age and for the younger girls understanding what is happening in a specific situation with a parent is more important than the name of the disease.

Best of luck with your treatment op, it's a long process.

#15 toomuchmess

Posted 01 June 2016 - 01:26 PM

 JRA, on 01 June 2016 - 10:48 AM, said:

It is an interesting comment about taking him to chemo. I must admit most adults even think the process of receiving chemo is horrendous, in fact most people sit their reading, talking  etc while receiving it. It may take some of the shock away.

My chemo unit is very small, only 4 chairs in the room. Im assuming its much more relaxed than elsewhere. We all chat to the others, watch movies, share the newspaper and junk mail around. Some nap and read books but not often. My nurse has always told me that they are there to help try and make people better. Everybody already feels like sh*t coming there, they dont want to make it feel like deaths waiting room.

#16 BoysGalore+1girly

Posted 01 June 2016 - 02:37 PM

my mummy has cancer by Lindsey Clarke
written by Lindsey for her daughter Nyah.


#17 MummyHILI

Posted 01 June 2016 - 03:37 PM

Thank you everyone for your advice. I will definitely take it on board and have more confidence in telling my son what is happening and knowing that he will be OK.

I really appreciate the time each and every one of you has taken in responding to my post xo

#18 WibbleWobble

Posted 01 June 2016 - 07:28 PM

I'm really sorry you are going through this. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is hard enough as it is, kids add an extra heartbreak to it.

You've already been given some great advice above.

My DS was 4 and DD was 5 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, we were honest with them and tried to explain and answer there questions in age appropriate ways.

We said it was cancer from the start, my BIL had been diagnosed with cancer several months before me, so they had heard the word before, even if they didn't really know what it meant. We didn't want it to be a secretive thing and said they could ask us anything at any time. We Told them that I would spend lots of time in hospital, and that I would get very sick before I got better. They came to visit me in hospital and did come to the chemo ward but after it had finished.

If they asked about dying, I am always truthful and say i might, but I'm doing everything I can to make sure I don't die. It is a hard conversation to have.  

The cancer council put out a guide broken in to age ranges, so you may find this useful.


There are a few of us here that have/had cancer, so let us know and we can try to help as best we can.

#19 DFWP

Posted 02 June 2016 - 02:34 PM

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2013. I had a 4cm triple positive tumour and a cancerous lymph node. Treatment involved lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemo (4x AC, 12x Taxol), radiation, herceptin (and Im still on Tamoxifen).

My kids were 2, 3 and 5 at the time of diagnosis.

I agree with the previous poster that this booklet is a great start: http://www.cancer.or...Kids-NSW-lo.pdf.

Like one of the pp's I didn't sugar coat or hide my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I used the words cancer and chemo and radiation. I explained the diagnosis and treatment in age appropriate terms. I was honest and upfront. I always made sure they knew exactly what was happening so they would never overhear any conversations with information that was new to them. I answered all questions. During treatment they did ask if I was going to die. I answered honestly.

I also told them a story I had made up about how one night, when they were asleep, I fought a dragon. The dragon scratched off my breast with his big claws. He started breathing fire at me and blew the hair of head. However I did manage to scare him away. I told them the scar on my chest and my bald head were proof that I am not just a mum but also a secret dragon fighting warrior princess.

They knew this was a story I made up. However we all loved that story.

After active treatment ended we made a little 3 minute video about our experience with cancer:

Hope this is helpful. Happy to chat on the phone, if so send me a pm.

#20 mum2brodie

Posted 08 June 2016 - 10:40 AM

I have now stage 4 Bowel cancer.  Originally it was Stage 3.

I kept things very simple with my son explaining that the chemo was going to make me feel pretty sick but its the drugs that will fight off the cancer.

At that stage it was easier to tell him that the Dr where doing their best and "No mummy wasn't going to die".  

We had to change the story abit once after several rounds of chemo we had found that the cancer had spread to other areas of my body.   But we still keep things simple.

Try to do baking and cooking etc with him and just chat and try to keep things as normal as possible.

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