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Coping with your diagnosis and treatment is hard enough but throw all the other responsibilities into the mix and it can feel overwhelming. It can be hard not to feel guilty and inadequate if you can no longer manage to keep all the balls in the air.

Talking to your children about your diagnosis

Younger women's guide to ovarian cancer

With the rush and stress of your treatment it’s not always possible to sit down with your children straight away to explain what is going on. Children are very sensitive to change and often suspect that a parent is ill long before they are told. Sometimes children’s fantasies can be much worse than reality. By talking to your children you give them permission to talk to you, your partner or a family member, about their fears. It might help to also:

  • Tell children together: if you have more than one child, telling them together can keep secrets and misinformation to a minimum.
  • Tell them what they need to know: firstly that you are poorly, secondly the correct name of the disease and finally some detail about what the treatment is. Also, warn them of any side effects such as losing your hair.
  • Keep it simple: dealing with your children’s emotions on top of your own worry and exhaustion can be hard but being open with children can avoid the additional stress of trying to keep a secret.

Macmillan Cancer Support has excellent guides on talking to children about cancer. Fruit Fly Collective also have a group of toolkits for young people who are affected by a parent being diagnosed with cancer.

How will my children react?

Their reaction will depend on their age and previous experience of loss. The may experience:

  • Anger: many children, of all ages, react with anger - at you, a teacher or their peers. This is very common and can be hard to deal with without getting angry yourself.
  • Regression: you may find that young children go backwards in their development. This is a normal response. For example, they may start wetting the bed, become clingier, go back to using a dummy or start playing up at school or getting into trouble.
  • Physical symptoms: children might complain of a headache, tummy ache, dizziness, sleeping problems and a loss of appetite. Girls are more likely to experience physical symptoms than boys.

What can I do?

Let your children know that you understand why they feel angry and allow them to express themselves. It might help them to channel their anger, for example through exercise or art.

  • Younger women's guide to ovarian cancerYou should let a young child’s teacher know what is happening so that they understand the reason for any behaviour change.
  • ​If you are in hospital your first instinct might be to not let your children see you. However, children who see their mother before and after surgery have been shown to cope better. Prepare them by letting them know what they might see. For example, learn by play through a doctor’s set or by tying headscarves onto dolls and bandaging teddies. Show them pictures of drips and drains where possible, describe a catheter bag and warn them what some of the other patients might look like.
  • Ask your Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) about counselling options for children.

Teenagers and older children

Teenage children may find your illness particularly difficult to deal with. Some may be very supportive and helpful while others may struggle due to being in denial or not knowing what to say. They may find it hard to open up about how they’re feeling, or appear uncaring and dismissive of your illness, and spend a lot of time watching TV or doing activities where they zone out. This is their way of protecting themselves.

What can I do?

  • Continue to keep your older children informed of what is happening. The chances are that they are very concerned but just don’t know how to express it.
  • Teenagers can be sensitive and they might want your diagnosis to remain private. Before telling a teenager’s teacher be sure to discuss it with them. If they have exams or coursework the school might be able to make allowances.
  • Try to give your child a feeling of security. Explaining what is happening and any changes in routine can be a great help.

Find out more

For younger women

General information

The information on this page is approved by the Information Standard scheme to ensure that it provides accurate and high-quality information.

Last reviewed: May 2017
Next review: April 2020