• Health
  • Cancer

Kate Middleton Had to Tell Her Kids About Her Cancer Diagnosis. These Parents Know What That’s Like

7 minute read

After weeks of fevered speculation, Catherine, Princess of Wales, revealed on Mar. 22 that she was absent from the public eye not because she was having marital problems or growing out a bad haircut, but because she was being treated for cancer. She and her husband had, she said, "taken 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." Even before her announcement, however, many cancer survivors who were also parents had already guessed at the truth. The silence and delay tactics looked familiar, because they had done the same thing when they got their own diagnosis.

"When you hear cancer, you just think, 'Oh, my goodness, I'm going to die,'" says Shambi Broome of Columbia, S.C., who was diagnosed at age 46 with colon cancer after a routine scan in 2022. "And then the next thought is, 'Wow, how do I tell my kids?'" Broome, who didn't know the full extent of her cancer until after she had an operation, waited until she was told she'd need chemotherapy before mentioning the C-word to her children, who were 13 and 18 at the time. Instead she told them she was having a part of her colon removed. "I didn't want to tell them anything until I could give them a full story," she says. "I didn't know what I would be preparing them for and I didn't want to scare them."

Read More: Kate Middleton Is Receiving Preventative Chemotherapy. Here's What That Is

That was also the case for Fiona Williams, some of whose children, at 17, 8, and 6, were close in age to the Windsor offspring when she was diagnosed in 2021. She mentioned nothing to them about her endometrial cancer until after her hysterectomy when she was told doctors had missed some and she'd need a further operation plus chemotherapy. "At that point, I thought that I'm going to have to tell my children now, because they're going to see me going through chemotherapy," says Williams, now 48. She tried to put as positive a spin on the news as she could, as they had already lost two relatives to cancer. "Of course the kids just start straightaway start crying, 'Oh, you're going to die, you're going to die,'" she says.

Williams, who is Scottish, says she feels particular sympathy for Middleton, because the announcement reminded her of her own medical procedure. "As soon as they said she was having 'abdominal surgery,'" I said to my husband, 'I bet you it's some sort of cancer,'" she says. She understood the need for obfuscating the real reason for Middleton's reclusiveness. "I knew that's why they were keeping it quiet. She didn't have to publicly tell people. I think it's just such a shame that she's been forced into doing that."

Cathal Morrow handled it somewhat differently when he was diagnosed in 2018. As a single dad looking after his children full-time, the Londoner felt he needed to tell his children, then 13 and 11, as quickly as possible. So he sat them down the evening after he was told the weird lump in his groin was T-cell lymphoma. "I said, 'Look, this is the situation. I have cancer. It's a great hospital. We don't know how it will turn out,'" says Morrow, now 58.

Read More: Why Are So Many Young People Getting Cancer? It's Complicated

While his approach may sound brutal, he said it was advised by a brochure from a cancer charity that he picked up at the oncologist's office to be honest with his children. And he emphasized the theme of security. "It was like, 'Whatever happens, you're going to be safe. Whatever happens, you're going to be secure.' I was positive without being dishonest," Morrow says. "And the kids were amazing. I think there's a certain amount of denial that kids have."

Because of the ages of Kate and William's children—George is 10, Charlotte is 8, and Louis is 5—the royal family would probably have had to tread more carefully than Morrow, a PR exec who once went a year without lying as an idea for a book. (He decided against writing it.) "The thing is, if you lie to your kids and say everything's gonna be great when you don't know, in the short term that definitely helps," he says. "But then, if you end up slowly dying, then actually I think you'll do your kids more damage."

Parents noted that their family anchor during their cancer treatment was normality, which may be a little harder for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to manage than most people. "My goal was that I didn't want it to interrupt my kids' routine," says Broome, whose treatment became complicated when a case of COVID-19 and a dose of chemo coincided and her health spiraled downward. "I would be physically present even if I wasn't feeling great or wasn't always there, but you try to do your best."

Read More: Kate Middleton and Prince William Break Silence After Cancer Diagnosis Reveal

That's not to say it's easy. Many parents struggled with maintaining a carefree attitude while being afraid they were in their last days. Morrow recalls that one of his sons declined to watch one of the Matrix movies with him and his other son the Saturday night after he got his diagnosis. "I went to the kitchen, and I burst into tears," he says. "And I realized that I wanted to watch The Matrix with my boys before I died." The revelation helped steer him away from letting his fear affect his interactions with his children. "The hardest thing with the kids was, if I was going to die, not to treat everything like it was my last moment," he says.

But parents also cautioned that you can't always tell how the news of the illness is affecting a child. Fran Hawthorne, a writer in New York City, thought her 10-year-old son was handling it really well after she told him she had breast cancer in 2005. He had lots going on in his life and was transitioning from elementary school to middle school. But halfway through summer camp, when she and her husband brought him home for a scheduled weekend visit, he suddenly announced he didn't want to leave. She was stunned because he'd loved summer camp and had begged to go for an extra session the year before. Eventually, though, she put two and two together. "When I showed up, it triggered something subconscious in him," she says. "He was like, 'Oh my God, if I'm away from mom, she could die while I'm away!'" she says. She let him stay home.

Broome, whose treatment finished only six months ago, says she has no regrets about how she handled her illness, but still feels what she calls "cancer guilt" on top of the usual mom guilt. "I thought they were OK," she says of her kids, with a catch in her throat. "And then my youngest said, 'I thought you were going to die,' and I felt like I didn't protect them enough." She's not sure there is a right answer for how much to tell children, especially when they're younger. "If you think you're protecting them, maybe it's not enough information, so they're coming up with their own scenarios," she says. But telling them too much can be equally overwhelming. "No matter how much you think you're protecting your kids," says Broome, "when you have cancer, you're really not."

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com