As Kate Middleton shares own fears, expert reveals best way to tell kids you have cancer

By Staff 12 Min Read

Kate’s fears about reassuring her young children following her “hugely shocking” cancer diagnosis resonated with many struggling families.

Telling children about your cancer is a difficult task, Robin Muir, centre head and clinical psychologist at national cancer charity Maggie’s Manchester, said, and one that takes time and consideration. The expert has outlined the challenges that come with disclosing such tough information, and the most important step, which he says is preparation.

The Princess of Wales revealed in a moving video message on Friday that she had been diagnosed with cancer following abdominal surgery earlier in the year. Her condition was initially believed to be non-cancerous, however post-operative test results showed traces of the disease.

The 42-year-old told of how she and her husband Prince William took their time in breaking the news to Prince George, 10, Princess Charlotte, 8, and Prince Louis, five. “Most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be ok,” Kate said. “As I have said to them; I am well and getting stronger every day by focusing on the things that will help me heal; in my mind, body and spirits.”

Robin explains that telling children about a parent or relative’s cancer often can’t be just one conversation, yet it must become an ongoing dialogue. “Like Kate said, it does take time to give children news and information about a cancer diagnosis,” Robin began.

“One of the big pieces of advice I find myself giving out is it doesn’t have to be a single conversation. It might be multiple conversations and that’s for a number of different reasons.” Depending on their age, children can respond to information with varying degrees of trepidation, Robin warns.

A child may be overwhelmed and need to take themselves out of the situation by returning to child-like activities such as playing to manage their distress. It’s not uncommon for children to blame themselves, as it is the only way they can make sense of it, providing them with control, Robin adds. In response to this, the expert warns about the pertinence of clarifying in your conversation that the disease is no one’s fault.

Younger kids, whose concept of illness may only extend to a sickness bug or cold, may take a more positive outlook. “‘Mummy isn’t well but she’s going to get better,'” Robin explained, compared to an older child who might take a more nuanced approach.

“I think we worry children are going to get really, really upset, and that’s often based on our own ideas of cancer,” Robin added. “However in my experience, children can respond initially in a favourable way.

“Usually in the first conversation, we’re using the word cancer. And the second conversation might be talking about what treatment someone’s going to have, ‘chemotherapy’, those sorts of things and what that might look like for the child.

“They can take it very matter of fact. Older children might think about the impact they have on their parents and do things to help mummy or daddy. Sometimes it may be necessary to encourage them to open up more about their emotions – ‘do you feel worried? Do you feel sad because we can no longer do the thing we used to do?'”

The mum of three spoke of “an incredibly tough couple of months for our entire family”, as she revealed the heartbreaking moment she and William contemplated sharing the sad news with their young family. She went on to confirm that she had begun a course of preventative chemotherapy, which started in February, however chose to keep the type of cancer private.

Kensington Palace said Kate continued to have a positive mindset for her recovery and is in good spirits. The princess said she had assured her children that she is “well and getting stronger every day”.

At Maggie’s, they advise cancer patients to inform their children before announcing the news to their wider circles, once they’re ready. In the event that friends’ children find out before their own, it can confuse the channels of communication and create uncertainty, Robin says.

It is understood Kate and William chose to wait until after their three children had broken up from school for their Easter holidays. Kensington Palace said: “The Princess wanted to share this information when she and The Prince felt it was right for them as a family.”

With Kate being the future Queen, Kensington Palace confirmed in January that they would share health updates following her abdominal surgery, only when necessary. And amidst the online hysteria of her whereabouts, the princess, seated on a bench in Windsor Gardens, made the brave decision to let the public know about her diagnosis in a personal way with a video message – detailing what had happened and how she is working through it – which has been praised by health leaders.

After informing youngsters of a diagnosis, Robin says it’s important to maintain as much normality in the home as possible. He says keeping a consistent bedtime routine and setting boundaries are all critical to a child feeling secure.

“But equally, it’s really important that we give children space and opportunity to talk about their fears, their worries, which might be with either parent, it might be with both, but just making sure that they have that ability to talk to them,” Robin added. “It’s creating a safe cocoon.”

Robin reiterates the importance of planning ahead with such news, and to consider such things as the delivery, what support you can provide, and when to inform their school. “You need to take care of yourself initially and make sense of the information you’ve been given,” Robin advised.

“And then think, how do I present this? You don’t want to jump into the deep end and see it as a single conversation. It should take time so children don’t feel pressure. The most important thing is to think about it ahead of time.”

Dame Laura Lee, Maggie’s chief executive, commented on the timeline of Kate’s devastating news. “I think the fact that the Princess is only telling us now that she has her cancer diagnosis is that she’s had to get her mind around her own diagnosis, her own treatment choices and her own decisions,” she added.

“The process that she has gone through requires time to absorb this enormous, shocking, and as she said, initially scary news. Now she’s undergoing a treatment pathway that she’s come to understand in her mind, she’s had time to adjust to that, and then also how to talk to her children, which now means it safe to tell us, the public, what she’s going through.

“We know at Maggie’s that it’s not just the person with cancer that’s going through the cancer diagnosis; it’s the family. One in two of us is going to get cancer in our lifetimes, so it’s not unusual what the royal family is experiencing, which is two family members going through cancer at the same time.

“What we do know is that they are a lovely, committed and united family, so the support and love that they have for each other through this time will be enormous. We also know that they’re getting expert, professional help to navigate the challenges that the treatment brings. They are united in this and will get through it.”

For more support and information on how to talk to children about cancer, please visit Maggie’s website here.

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