Talking to teenage children about a parents’ cancer diagnosis

PUBLISHED: 14:01 25 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:13 30 October 2018

Sharon Green and her children Jack and Jessica

Sharon Green and her children Jack and Jessica

Sharon Green

Marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Nicola Barrell discovers how best to break the news of a cancer diagnosis to teenage children

Sharon wearing a scalp cooling cap bought by charity Walk the Walk to prevent hair loss during chemoSharon wearing a scalp cooling cap bought by charity Walk the Walk to prevent hair loss during chemo

Talking to teenage children after a parents’ cancer diagnosis

Maggie’s Cambridge offers professional support to people with cancer and their loved ones across East Anglia.

The organisation offers this advice when talking to older children about a parent’s cancer diagnosis

Sharon during her treatment for cancer having kept her hairSharon during her treatment for cancer having kept her hair

We all want to protect our children and to spare them worry and upset. Honesty and openness will enable children (of any age) to feel included in the difficult months ahead.

Often teenage children can find it difficult to express emotion and talk about their concerns, for some this may mean they will try to push away, feeling both angry and guilty at the same time

Find out what they already know

Your children may have picked up on that things are not quite right or you may have had surgery to confirm a diagnosis. It can be helpful to ask the children what they understand to give you a starting point of what they have interpreted but also allow you to appreciate any misunderstandings.

Timing and location

Think about somewhere that you and the children feel safe and comfortable. It can often be helpful to ensure there is plenty of time for questions and to process the information.


It can be helpful to have further information or support. Teenagers will generally be most comfortable using electronic resources.

Cancer links covers all cancer types and treatments:

RipRap is a good online resource which enables teenagers to learn more about cancer, read other young people’s experiences and share their own story.

Encourage questions

Try and encourage children to ask questions. Open questions can be really helpful to start a conversation. For example how are you feeling today? This type of questioning can be more supportive than closed questioning such as are you feeling ok?

Preparing for change

It can be important to prepare children for things that may change for you over the coming months and how this may affect them – such as hair loss, hospital trips and feeling tired/unwell during treatment. Nominate a family member/friend as someone the children can contact or speak too if they are worried or concerned about anything.

Maggie’s Cambridge can be contacted on: 01223 249220

Case Study

Jack and his sister Jessica were young teenagers when their mother Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer, Nicola Barrell talks to the Norfolk family about how they coped with the devastating news.

Sharon Green was working in a care home for elderly people and managing life as a single mother of two teenage children - 15-year-old Jack and his 13-year-old sister Jessica – when she took part in an under 50s mammogram trial in Norfolk.

Just weeks later, Sharon sat in shock as the consultant told her the lump in her breast was cancerous. At the age of 48, her immediate thoughts turned to her two children.

“It was like the bottom of my world dropped out. The consultant talks to you and you don’t take anything in because of all the thoughts running through your head – ‘it can’t be happening to me, what about my children? Am I going to survive?”

As Sharon struggled to process the diagnosis, she thought about how she was going to break the news to Jack and Jessica, who were both pupils at Thorpe High School.

“I asked Jack if he wanted to take the dog for a walk and I plucked up the courage to tell him first. I said that they had caught the cancer early and the doctors were doing everything they could to help me.”

“Jack was upset and so was I because it is one of the most difficult things to do as a mother. Your instinct is to protect your child and I was telling him something, which was so devastating.”

Jack was determined to be positive and focus on his GCSE studies. “Mum had said that the hospital was doing everything it could so I told myself not to get too worried and worked up about it.”

The following day’s conversation with her daughter Jessica was equally as difficult.

“I think Jessica found it hard to understand because she had never thought about the word cancer before and what that meant.”

Jessica said: “It was really unexpected and something I thought would never happen. When Mum told me I started crying.”

Although Sharon had dreaded telling her children, their reaction and the subsequent support from friends and family boosted her belief that they could face the immediate future together.

“I told both of them that I was going to be 100% honest with them right the way through about everything which was happening to me and told them to ask about anything they didn’t understand.”

Sharon’s mother and a close friend stepped in to help out on a day to day basis and the children were also able to talk to school friends who had been through a similar situation.

The next few months were dominated by surgery to remove a lymph node, a mastectomy and six sessions of chemotherapy.

Sharon chose to wear a scalp cooling cap while receiving chemo to prevent her hair falling out and, she says, it made a real difference to how the children felt. The machine had been bought by the charity Walk the Walk and Sharon herself had taken part in one of their sponsored walks, little knowing she would directly benefit from the money she raised.

“It helped the kids that I still looked like their Mum as I didn’t lose my hair or look any different. I think they would have struggled to see me bald.”

All the way through her treatment Sharon reassured the children that she had faith in the hospital and that the doctors were doing everything they could.

“There were times when I wondered whether I was going to survive when I was having chemo. My immune system was so low and I was really tired and sick. I had to dig really deep to keep going.”

However, Jack and Jessica supported their mother by helping out around the house.

“It was very tough going but they were brilliant they would get me a cup of coffee help prepare tea, take dog for a walk or hoover and that was brilliant because I just wasn’t able to do any of that.”

I knew that Mum really appreciated me helping out and that helped me,” said Jack.

“The hardest thing was watching Mum when she was tired and sick and it was upsetting that she had to go through this. I washed up and helped with the housework and that made a difference,” said Jessica.

After completing the chemotherapy Sharon was able to talk the family away to Liverpool for the weekend thanks to a local charity grant. Birthdays and Christmas became even more important to celebrate and enjoy time together.

Sharon was given the all clear 18 months ago and even though admits that she occasionally worries about whether the cancer will return, the experience has completely changed her outlook on life.

“I have changed as a person. I am so happy all of the time. I appreciate everything - from the smallest little thing to bigger things. I am just really thankful every day.”

“I used to worry a lot about the bills and being a single mum you haven’t got money you’d like to have. Now I don’t care if the bills have to wait another week.”

“I am here. Jack and Jessica have their Mum. We are happy and that is all that matters. We have always been a very close family and this experience has brought us closer together”.

One of these special times was a shopping trip with Jack to buy a suit for his prom.

“When Jack walked out of the changing room in his suit, I just burst into tears because I was so relieved to still be here and to be able to share this moment with him.”

For Jack and Jessica the greatest gift is that their Mum is alive and the teenagers express this in few words but which say so much. Jessica: “It is just the best.” and Jack: “You only get one Mum.”

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