Full disclosure: 'I told my kids I had cancer'

Helen O’Callaghan on the need to be open about serious illness.

JUST after her daughter’s First Communion in 2016, Caitríona Plunkett had the lump she’d found in her breast weeks earlier checked out.

By June — after mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy — the 35-year-old mum-of-two was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Describing it as “aggressive, fast-growing cancer with a smaller treatment menu”, Dublin-based Caitríona had 16 chemo sessions by late October. In mid-November, she had a mastectomy — and reconstruction – of her right breast.

From the outset, Caitríona and husband Conor were honest with Corinne and Gavin, then aged nine and six respectively. “We have an honesty policy in our household. We’re an open family, no secrets. Children’s radar is much better than grown-ups’— they pick up on everything. It was a difficult time — we didn’t want to complicate it more by not telling them. Children tend to fill in blanks with monsters and worst-case scenarios, so it’s important they get facts.”

Caitríona knows even very young children are exposed to cancer messages. “They hear at school about someone’s granny dying of cancer. We didn’t want our kids to automatically relate cancer diagnosis to death.”

She took a direct approach: “I used the word ‘cancer’. I explained it was cells going crazy, that treatment needs to blast them out. I explained Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Corinne burst into tears — she’d lost a friend in Montessori who’d had cancer, though the little girl died of an infection.

This was an opportunity to ensure they really understood what cancer was. I told them I’d be going for chemotherapy, how it washes out the cells but affects good cells too and I’d definitely have side-effects like losing my hair. I told them I’d be completely honest with them and keep them updated.

Both parents felt telling their children the truth was about inclusion, “not pushing them away or disrespecting them”.

When children are included they can feel useful, says Caitríona. “When I needed to take it easy and have a duvet day, they’d snuggle in with me and we’d watch movies and play games. They looked after me with snuggles and love.”

Caitríona felt supported during treatment by Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Nurseline — Nurseline is funded by Daffodil Day, which takes place today. Buy pin/daffodils from local volunteer; donate at www.cancer.ie.

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