In May 2019, at the age of 39, I found myself having to have a conversation with my children that I had never thought I was going to have. Or at least, if I had thought about it, I would not have guessed that they would have been 4, 7 and 11 at the time.
I had been diagnosed with bowel cancer earlier that day, a result which had taken both myself and my doctors entirely by surprise. In fact, it was so unexpected, I hadn’t even asked my husband to pick me up from my colonoscopy but had asked my mum instead.
As the scope went in and I saw my cancer on the screen, my whole world shifted. In an instant, I was having conversations one does not really dream of. I told my mother I had cancer when she entered the cubicle. She put her arm around me as I rang my husband. Then I told my father, my siblings and asked them all not to talk to my children until I could, until we could – my husband and I together.
Fast forward a few hours – after loads more scans – and I was crouched half-naked on the floor of the radiology changing room, phoning my closest friend, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, desperately asking her how I explain all this to my children. How could I explain when I didn’t have many answers to the questions which would inevitably come?
There was one thing I knew for sure, though: I was going to be honest with them. I was heading for major surgery and chemotherapy and, even if I wasn’t, I knew that children pick up on things – they would know that something was going on, even if it was simply that we were upset.
Children react according to their stage of development. The 4-year-old simply asked who was going to take her to school. The 7-year-old instinctively went to hug me but recoiled almost instantly, asking if you could catch cancer. And the 11-year-old wanted to talk about a character in a book he’d read who has cancer. That is what children do. They think how does this situation affect my life? What do I need to know?
Questions came later and, as they came, I answered, as honestly and openly as I could – but without necessarily giving extra details that they had not actually asked about. When they asked me if I was scared, I said yes, that I was scared of being in pain but that I knew that the doctors would give me medicine to make it better. When they asked me if I could go to their assembly or concert (oh, the pre-Covid days!), I didn’t make promises that I would and simply said I would try my best.
The younger two were still at the age of magical thinking, where children may believe that they can control a situation over which they have no influence at all. For example: “I was cross with Mummy because she told me off and then I wished she would go away… and so I caused the cancer, didn’t I?” I was careful to answer these questions, or even pre-empt them, reassuring them that the cancer was not related to anything they had done or said, that sometimes these things just happen.
The children then dealt with the news and the 18 months of treatment that followed by talking but also by playing. They were practising, role-playing their feelings, trying things out…
After multiple surgeries, including an enormous one right in the middle of this pandemic which required 10 days in ICU and 2 weeks in hospital, chemotherapy, procedures, scans, blood tests and much more, I am now cancer free.
My children are incredibly resilient but, importantly, they saw me fight, they saw that it is OK to struggle, that it is OK to be sad or angry or fed up – but that you keep going as long as you can.
They did not see perfection, they saw what is real and I hope that it taught them something that will help in whatever their own trials may be in the future. As for me, they taught me the importance of expressing whatever you feel, even if it makes the other person uncomfortable. They also taught me that they are stronger than I ever knew. I could not be prouder.
- Doctors Get Cancer Too is my diary of being a doctor who developed bowel cancer with three young children, a husband, a busy life and all the chaos that involves! It tells how cancer changed me as a person and as a doctor.
About our expert, Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.