Talking about the Big C

A few years ago on holiday at our parents second home in Cyprus we discovered Dad had a persistent cough, he didn't want to worry Mum about it so didn't go to the Dr's. We were concerned so my hubby insisted it was checked out. Next steps were a whirlwind of activity...referral to the General Hospital, not good news, I flew back to UK alone to work, Hubby stopped work and stayed in Cyprus (we were contractors so it was possible to give notice and leave easily), 2 hour drive to a more equipped hospital for MRI/CT scan, not good news, after much discussion they decided to come back to their UK home (they pretty much spent 6m in Cy and 6m in UK split throughout the year). Next onto the NHS system, referral to specialist, referral to Royal Brompton, lung removal, chemo, chemo, chemo and with much determination to rid himself of the big C.

Throughout 2008 I was pregnant with Jasmine, I practiced Sophrology (positive thinking) with my midwife, I focused on my baby playing outside his/her grandparents house with Grandad - these strong images helped throughout my labour where I could almost feel the sunshine on us.

2009 Jasmine was born - Dad given all clear

2010 Izzy was born - Dad given all clear

2012 Maisy was born and unfortunately Dad had backache, scans on lung kept coming back clear. But backache was worse, eventually discovered the big C had somehow gotten into his lower back. Being the most brave man I know he has pushed for an op to remove some of his spine & get rid of it again. Now we are awaiting the pre-op test & op in January.

Being 3 and a half Jasmine is aware Grandad is poorly, this week it became more apparent as to her level of understanding. We were supposed to be going to their house on Saturday before we go back to France for Christmas. Unfortunately we have really bad colds with fevers again and as Dad is awaiting his pre-op, we can't afford to give him a virus so we can't go. Jasmine asked me why? I explained Grandad has backache and needs an operation "like Grandma's backache?" she replied (my mum has fibromyalgia) "No, a bit different. He has some naughty cells in his back, so the Dr has to do an operation & take them out". "Right, she replied - "Can we go to a cafe now?".

I don't really know how to explain it to her but I know I don't want her confusing Grandad's poorly back & need for an operation with an ongoing poorly back like Grandmas or Nanny's (arthritis) or Daddy's after too much lifting. She's an inquisitive child, she thinks about things a lot, I don't want her to worry too much, but how do you explain the big C to her? It's obvious that we are upset about it, though we try not to talk about it in front of her.

Anyone offer any advice please?

No great pearls of wisdom but just wanted to say that I am really, really sorry to hear this and am keeping everything crossed for all of you xx

Thanks Andre - much appreciated. Good news is things are ticking along here with the hospital and if all goes well he should be in for the op in January.

Thanks everyone I'll keep it simple, thanks for the links too, I'll have a look at these. I am sure he will fight it as hard as he can - he is stoical and so brave. The girls adore him and so do I. One of the problems we face at the moment is not being able to see him because of us catching Winter virus's. We'll try again in January but we need to be in good health as I'd hate for us to pass on a virus when he's due his operation. He's beat it before and he can beat it again. Jasmine sang Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer down the phone yesterday to him and I'm sure it made his day!

Was thinking what might be useful and e-mailed a friend in the USA, who just happened to be at a desk in London! She is actual an expert on dying children but I thought she would know about peer bereavement and therefore about illness and so on. Here is what she recommends.

Winston's Wish ( have books on the topic that might help. The organisation absolutely specialises at looking at such issues as this. For the worst scenario which I hope not, but no harm in preparing for, include : Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen, 1983, Bantam. and also, Love Never Stops: A Memory Book for Children, Emilio Parga, 2007, The Solace Tree

Suzanne, I think that I totally agree with most of the replies here. Three is far too young to explain the difficulties involved in cancer.
I remember when my “second” mother was dying of cancer we took our girls to say goodbye to Auntie Cathie and we gave her a “love transfusion”.
We all held hands and passed our love from us to her. We didn’t explain that she had cancer, just that she was so poorly that she was very tired and it was too hard for her to stay alive any more, so this would be the last ti e we would see her.
They accepted this quite readily.
I do feel for you and your family at this very difficult time.

Oh hell. When my mother-in-law died she had collapsed and gone into a coma. I was away working, so family gathered. My OH and the two girls went to Stansted without a booked flight and were able to get tickets on the first flight to Milan. So that from a call at about 10 in the morning they were there by 'teatime', dogs and cats in the care of neighbours, etc. Next day everybody went, the then early teen cousins and the girls who were a few months old (too young to know) and three. It was a massive brain tumour and she was only nominally alive on life support. The entire family agreed to let it be switched off. Whilst she was 'still there' everybody said goodbye. For me that is a culturally difficult one to understand, I never saw it face to face. My mother was very ill and I said that she should let go if it was too hard going, but it was a week after I saw her and said that, so I was absolutely not present as in the case of m-in-l. Even her emeritus bishop brother did not say the 'gone to God', 'with the angels' thing, but simply 'goodbye' and a kiss. My older daughter still vaguely remembers that. However, there was none of the extended period of coping you have Suzanne... So there is the big difference.

So sorry Suzanne to hear of your Dads illness. I find the simple explanations are the best for 3 year olds...they turn off otherwise, short and simple, just explain that there are different backaches....Hope the op goes well and that you can have a good Christmas.

Suzanne I am so sorry to hear about your father's illness and I hope the operation he is going to have in the New Year is successful. I think I agree with Lucy & Sandra, less is more when your child is only 3 and at Jasmine's age she just needs to be told that Grandpa is really sick and may not be his normal self for a long time. My own father had lung cancer when our sons were 9 and 4, he was their favourite Grandad and we knew right from the first diagnosis that he was not going to make it. We explained to them that he was very ill. They were able to visit him frequently during his illness and as Dad was only in his early fifties, the GP decided it was best that he stayed at home to be nursed by family rather than being admitted to hospital. When we were called to his bedside in the middle of the night, we asked our lovely neighbour to come in and take care of the boys. (She was like my second Mother to me and a surrogate Granny to them). We phoned her early in the morning to tell her that Dad had died during the night. Our sons were still asleep and when they woke up they obviously wanted to know where we were, she explained and told them that their Grandad 'had gone to heaven' the 9 year old had a little cry but the 4 year old said "Oh poo! Did Mummy & Daddy tell you where you can find our breakfast?" So I would also agree with Zoe, the way kids minds work is cute.

So sorry to hear of your father's health issues! Very difficult! I agree with Sandra - I don't think your three year old needs to know more than that Grandpa's back ache is a long term thing! There is a brilliant book - the name of which escapes me - which gives very clear age appropriate ways of discussing a variety of situations. I wish I could remember what it was called! This might be helpful though ... Good luck - both with talking to your daughter, and for your father.

I'm sorry to hear of your father's situation. However, I really don't think that at three years old your daughter should be taking on the full force of a cancer diagnosis in a grandparent. To differentiate between a backache and cancer in the spine you just need to explain that one is temporary and the other probably ongoing in terms of pain etc. bearing in mind that after his operation he will probably not be comfortable or out of the woods. I don't think the explanation needs to be more than that at Jasmine's age. Being three doesn't mean being loaded down with gloom and worry - just a simple explanation is called for so she can continue enjoy being a child.

That is a tough one for a little one to get her head around. Is it possible to explain that there are different types of pain, or sickness, like pain from a cut, or pain from when you fall...

I remember everyone in my family dying of cancer, and I just knew the word.. and that the word meant "death". My grand-uncle was in hospital and my mother told me,"He has cancer"....I was only 4 at the time, and I asked her "is he gunna die soon?"

Luckily, cancer no longer means death. I think it is important to talk about it, because so many people find it almost taboo, and I think it is a mark from childhood, and losing someone, but never having anyone explain to them what was going on. We should be more open, and expressive with this, but, trying to explain it to a child is a really hard task, I don't envy you.

I think the "naughty cells" thing might have worked, if she didn't insist too much, but "cells" she might pull you on again. Maybe it's enough to say "he has sickness" in his back, and the operation is to get it out.

I have a cousin who, when she was 5, andher mother was going through her third pregnancy, and had a bout of mornign sickness, she asked her parents "why is it that when mommy gets sick, daddy feels sorry for her, but when uncle tommy gets sick, nobody helps him and gets him a glass of water"...

"uncle tommy"was going through his student wild phase, and frequently excused himself to be sick in the mornings.

the way kids' minds work is so cute.