Millions of UK parents keep mum about cancer diagnosis

12 December 2018 . United Kingdom

Being diagnosed with cancer is a stark reality for millions of people; one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. However Bupa has revealed that some parents hold back on sharing the prognosis with children due to concerns about how they will take the news.

  • 6.2 million UK parents have delayed telling their children about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis
  • One in five children completely in the dark about the diagnosis
  • Main reasons for secrecy driven by concerns over children’s mental wellbeing
  • Bupa’s ‘I know someone with cancer’ guides have been created to help support parents and their children
Father and daughter drawing

According to new research from Bupa UK, 6.2 million UK parents delayed telling their child when a close family member or friend was diagnosed with cancer. More than a third of these parents waited until treatment was underway or finished, and one in five (21%) kept it completely secret.

The main reason for parents to delay or avoid telling their children that a loved one has cancer is because they do not want to worry them. One in seven (14%) parents would be worried that the news could have a negative impact on their child’s mental health, and a similar number (12%) believe that it would disrupt their child’s schoolwork.

Starting a conversation about cancer can be challenging - especially with a child - and over two-fifths of parents (44%) say they would not know where to begin. Others also worry about getting upset in front of their children.

Although parents delay discussing a loved one’s cancer diagnosis to protect their children, Bupa’s Cancer Care team - who provide counselling services to cancer patients and their families - advise that being open may be the best approach.

Bupa research found that four in 10 (44%) parents are unsure where to get support for children dealing with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer. With one in 10 (10%) parents saying that helping their child deal with a close friend or family’s cancer diagnosis affected their mental health, it’s clear that parents need more support. Bupa has created a series of ‘I know someone with cancer’ guides which parents can use to explain what cancer means, what may happen and guidance for helping children deal with their emotions.

Julia Ross, Head of Cancer Care, Bupa UK, said: “One in two people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer so it’s something that many families will unfortunately face. It can be a stressful, busy time with lots of decisions to make. No parent wants to upset their child, but withholding information may be more harmful, causing them to become anxious or worried.

"From my professional experience and as a parent, I know that children will respond differently, so it’s important to be adaptable. We offer our cancer patients and their families access to counselling and mental health support following a cancer diagnosis so that everyone gets the emotional support they need when they need it.”

Advice from Julia Ross, Head of Cancer Care, Bupa UK, includes:

Take your cues from them – Children can often sense when something isn’t right. For some children, feeling like they’re being kept in the dark may lead to anxiety and stress, so it may better to be honest about your health concerns, or health concerns of a loved one.

Answer their questions – Encourage your children to ask questions. Curious children will look for answers elsewhere, relying on misinformation from friends or the internet, which may cause them unnecessary worry.

Don’t be afraid to show emotion – No parent wants to worry their child but letting them see that you’re upset let’s them know that it’s ok to feel sad. Hiding your emotions may make them feel that they’re not allowed to be upset, or that other family members don’t care.

Spending quality time – Sticking together as a family can be good for overall wellbeing, and it can help children feel supported following a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Creating a supportive environment can help build resilience in children and make them feel more comfortable asking questions about cancer.

Seek support – Learning that someone you love has cancer is upsetting no matter how old you get. Notifying your child’s school of the news means that teachers can offer support and will understand if they are acting differently than normal or struggling with work. It is also worth investigating the support available locally for you and your family.

Bupa’s Cancer Promise means that there are no financial or time limits on cancer treatment and includes access to specialist advisers and trained counsellors, who provide our customers and their families with emotional and psychological support.

Notes to editor

Opinium Research surveyed 2,000 UK adults (18 and over) between 23 and 25 October 2018. Of these, 1,279 were recorded as parents. Results are weighted to be nationally representative where relevant.

  1. One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime - statistic from Cancer Research UK 
  2. 6.2 million UK parents delayed telling their child when a close family member or friend is diagnosed with cancer - 56% of parents said they waited to tell or didn’t tell their child about a cancer diagnosis in their close family or friends when their child was under 18 years old. This equates to 12% of UK adults. UK population (52,079,000) = 6,266,120.

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