How Do You Tell Your Kids Their Father Has Cancer?

How do you tell your kids their father has cancer?  Not only that, but the stage 4 there is no stage 5 kind of cancer.  How do you tell them this when you have only just begun to process this information yourself?

After leaving the clinic with his diagnosis, my husband and I had spent the day reeling from the news.  We revolved through feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, and grief.  We clung to each other and cried, unable to fathom what this could possibly mean for our near and distant futures. We read a few articles online as to what and how to tell your children.  Then I think we rented a funny movie and tried to take our minds off of all that had just transpired, and waited for the kids to get home from school.

We were a team, we had always been a team.  We left our hometown a month after we got married and moved to a different coast for my husband’s new job.  We had spent our entire married life together far away from our families, and what that created was our own very strong family unit.  We had no one to run to except each other when there was a problem, and I think we learned fairly quickly that communication and respect were key elements to our relationship.  This didn’t change after we had kids, they just became part of the team.

We briefly debated waiting until we had more information, until we knew what the plan was going to be before we told the kids.  But it was Friday, we weren’t going to see a doctor until Monday, and besides that, they would read it all over our faces as soon as they walked through the door.  We decide that we would just rip off the band-aid and get it over with, and then we would face it together.

I went back and found an email that I had written to my mother shortly after we told the children…

            We just told the kids… All things considered I think it went pretty well.  “Daughter (age 9)” burst into tears, but now seems calm and like she’s trying to pretend that it didn’t just happen (she’s buried it somewhere).  “Son (age 11)” was very concerned and wanted to know the odds of survival, and if dad was going to die, could he catch it?, is this the worst type of cancer?, who do we know that’s had cancer and lived?, etc. (he will stew with it I think)… Biggest concern for both is obviously is dad going to die… Heart breaking, but we managed to stay fairly calm.  Helps that we don’t have the hideous answers to these questions yet.  This has to be a bad dream right?

This began our policy of keeping the children in the loop on everything that was happening. It was important to us that they felt like we weren’t keeping anything from them.  We hoped that if they knew the plan, knew what was going to happen and when, that this would help reduce their stress and allow them to prepare for what would be happening to their father.  They were part of the team, they were part of this, and they would be onboard for all the changes we would eventually make.

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The Diagnosis: Stage IV Colon Cancer

In March 2012, my husband, at the age of 39, was diagnosed (seemingly out of the blue) with stage IV colon cancer and our lives changed in an instant.  In that moment we had to find a way to deal with a crisis the likes of which we have never faced before, not only for ourselves but also for our two children.  This is just the beginning of my devastating, crazy, incredible story.

There had been no symptoms other than some bouts of constipation that had begun around Christmas 2011.  Most of the time my husband felt fine, but it was becoming more bothersome.  He made an appointment with his doctor after the holidays in January, but my husband had what he refers to as a  “blow out” the night before the appointment so when the doctor was listening to his insides everything sounded like it was “moving”.

“Don’t worry”, the doctor said “you are too young for it to be anything serious”.

In February things started acting up again, but life got so busy… we went on a vacation and then my husband went directly from there on a business trip overseas.  Unfortunately it was at the end of our vacation when he started feeling not great, and while on his business trip there were a couple of days he couldn’t work because he felt so awful.  By the time he got home and got back to the doctor it all happened very quickly.

The doctor ran blood tests which showed some abnormalities… “maybe it’s a gall stone.”  From there he was sent for an ultrasound (Tuesday) and simultaneously scheduled for a colonoscopy.  The ultrasound picked up something and he was sent for a CT scan the next day (Wednesday). Thursday he did his prep for the colonoscopy, a miserable experience, but at this point we are still not really thinking it can be anything too serious… He’s too young for it to be anything really bad (and by bad I mean cancer, we all mean cancer when we think the worst right?).

Friday morning I went with him for the colonoscopy.  While we were in the waiting room my husband’s cell phone rang and it was his doctor… They had found lesions on his liver, “it could be cancer”… This is where it starts to get really scary, we really didn’t have much time to talk before they called him in for the procedure and I was left in the waiting room with these words ringing in my ears and the look of fear that was in my husband’s eyes.

At this point I was getting very sympathetic looks from the others in the waiting room, I think they may have overheard our conversation, or maybe it’s the fact that its taking all my strength to contain the freaking out that’s going on in my head, not to completely lose it… but it leaks out every now and then.

When I’m called back to see my husband in the recovery area the doctor is there right away.  “You have stage 4 colon cancer, it has already spread to your liver, I’m so sorry” she says.  Wait, no biopsy? No waiting for the test results? And how do you know its spread? Wait, what? How can this be happening? As she explains that the tumor was so large that she could not even complete the colonoscopy, that she is so sure that she does not need to wait for the test results, that she has seen the CT scan, that he shouldn’t eat because they might want to operate right away… This is one of those times when you feel like it might really be a dream.  This isn’t actually happening is it? The nurse is hugging us… this is bad, this is really, really bad.

Coming next “Telling the Kids”…