'Mummy, are you going to die?' How I told my children I have stage 4 cancer
Beth Purvis, aka Bowel Warrior, is a 40-year-old mother of two from Elsenham who writes about living with stage 4 cancer, in a fortnightly column for the Bishop's Stortford Independent...
I am often asked how my children are and what they know about my cancer. Well, they know everything.
Have you ever tried hiding something from a child? They are usually quite deaf if you ask them to brush their teeth or lay the table, but if you whisper something you don't want them to hear they suddenly develop supersonic hearing. Only, they usually manage to pick up half of what you say and their imagination goes into overdrive on the rest.
So how do you start that conversation? It is easier than you might think. It starts with those hospital appointments where even you don't know what's wrong yet. You tell your kids you have hospital appointments for tests to find out why you're not feeling quite right – no biggie, huh?
Then the diagnosis. Slightly bigger deal – how do you tell them you have cancer?
I wanted to tell my children the truth, but, to be honest, I'm not sure I was ready to accept I had cancer yet, so I couldn't bring myself to use that word.
In the beginning I just told them I had some bad cells that shouldn't be there. We talked about my surgery and how the doctors would cut out the bad cells, and I explained I would need medicine called chemotherapy to try to kill off any cells the doctors could not see.
I expected lots of questions – the kids were six and eight at the time – but, oddly, they just accepted what we told them.
Abi, the younger one, was really interested in things like the chemotherapy bottle that came home attached to me. Yes, you might be able to hide a trip to the hospital, but you just cannot hide it when your chemo takes 48 hours to pump into your system so you bring it home with you! It's also quite tricky to hide lying in bed for days on end and throwing up randomly, so, when I think back, not telling the children could never have been an option.
We never promised the doctors would make me better and we never promised everything would be okay – how could we? We had no idea ourselves if things would be okay and we still have no idea really.
Even though we had never made any promises, the hardest thing was not telling the children I was ill in the first place, it was when we found the treatment had not worked, the cancer had spread and the only treatment was palliative chemo.
We needed a little time to process the new information. We knew we needed to tell the kids... but how, when and what exactly would we say? Well, it was taken out of my hands a little and it sort of happened naturally.
A Macmillan Cancer Support advert came on the telly and Joe, the older one, said: "You had cancer didn't you, Mummy, but you don't have it any more do you?" At that point I knew I had to just tell them, right there and then.
I just blurted it out: "I need to tell you what the doctors told me a couple of days ago. The cancer is back and they can't cure me, but they'll do everything they can to keep me here as long as possible." There were a lot of tears (mostly from me), lots of cuddles and lots of questions.
Here are a few actual questions from my kids, and my answers:
Joe: Mummy, are you going to die? (Yes, kids are as blunt as that).
Me: Everyone dies at some point, but I might die earlier than we would like.
Abi: Mummy, will you make it until Christmas? (Honestly, I still think she might have been thinking more about her presents).
Me: I hope so. I love Christmas!
Abi: Mummy, if you die, will Daddy marry someone else? (Erm, not sure I wanted to think about that).
Me: He might, but that's okay because I want him to be happy.
Once you start talking, it becomes much easier, and, over time, it becomes your new normal; recent better news has been much easier to deliver. I still dread the day I have to tell them it's back again, but they seem to take everything in their stride.
I honestly think that because my children know no different it's just part of their life. The school have never raised any concerns and they seem comfortable coming to us with any worries. We haven't had any difficult behaviour to deal with and we have never had any concerns about them.
I put this down to our honesty with our kids – or maybe it's just what I've always suspected: that Daddy the big softie is their favourite parent.