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From one mum to another - a story of cancer and hope

Updated: May 2

News of Princess Catherine's cancer treatment spread quickly. It was shocking to see a high-profile, healthy young woman struck down in her prime.

Sadly, cancer doesn't discriminate.

My heart went out to her because I know what dealing with cancer when you have primary school-aged children.

In April, received a call from the Australian Woman's Weekly who wanted to speak to someone in Australia about what it is like to parent young children when you are dealing with cancer.

I was happy to share my story.

A closed magazine next to an open magazine

I was on my way to pick up my 10-year-old daughter Freya from a birthday party when I received the news I might have cancer. I said to the doctor, “I don’t have time for cancer,” and he said, “Well, you’re going to have to make a bit of time.”

I was devastated, it felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me. Everything I had assumed about my life was gone in that instant. I was going to live this long and happy life and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Well that might not happen.’ I literally had to plaster a smile on my face and pick up my daughter and pretend everything was okay until the kids – my son, Gordon, was seven at the time – went to bed. Then I talked to my husband Scott about it.

I had a series of medical appointments – a CAT scan, a PET scan, a biopsy, blood tests. I had Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and my body lit up like a Christmas tree in the PET scan – there was cancer everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to do about telling the kids because it all happened so quickly. When I asked my oncologist she said, “Don’t lie to them. If you try to hide it, they will pick up whispered conversations and think it’s something worse.” I’m so glad I took her advice.

We sat Freya and Gordon down at the table after dinner and said, “We have something to tell you.” I struggled to speak without crying so Scott took over. We had talking about what we would say. He kept it simple, and we kept it to the basics.

We said I had cancer; that I needed to visit the hospital a lot to get better and that I might not be better until Christmas – which was six months away. We kept it open so they could come and ask questions later if they wanted to.

Over time, they asked more. They wanted to know about my hair – would I lose it? Who would look after them when I was in hospital. And then, how I would go with needles because they know I hate them. That kind of thing.

Within two weeks of being told “we think you have cancer” I was in hospital getting chemotherapy. We told the kids – it was July 2018 – that I would finish treatment in December and my son said, “But Christmas is so far away” and it just broke my heart to think my being unwell would ruin such a huge chunk of their lives. 

There’s often a sense of shame about a cancer diagnosis, like it is your fault somehow. But there are so many more treatments available now and the prognosis is so much better for so many cancers. I’m so pleased someone high profile like Princess Catherine is talking about it. It normalizes cancer and makes people feel they are not alone. It also shows people that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Because when you have got a cancer diagnosis it doesn’t matter who you are, treatment and fatigue consumes a lot of time. And when you have got kids it’s so much harder to juggle cancer and parenting.

When I first got out of hospital, literally all I could do was get out of bed in the morning and make it to the couch. I couldn’t go out and say goodbye to the kids or make their lunches or anything.

A woman with a head covering, a man with a panda head and a young girl hug
It took a long time to recover from my stem cell transplant

School mums I didn’t even know would drop off food. I had a local barber who shaved my head for me because I looked so terrible, I had someone who took my kids to school and back home for a whole term. My husband, Scott, held it together and managed out family while my mum flew back and forwards from Tasmania to help. I could not believe the amount of kindness I received - from friends, from my family, from shopkeepers, strangers, and neighbours.

Through this time, I kept talking to my kids and giving them age-appropriate updates as the doctors gave them to me. They had to help a little bit more around the house – they would do the dishes and put loads of washing in the machine, make their own lunches, feed the cat, put the rubbish out. And I also made sure people knew what was happening to me so that the kids have adults they could talk to. They knew could talk to teachers, to the headmaster, to my friends and our extended families – they had a support network.

I had six months of chemotherapy, and it was a failure. Three months later I had what they call “salvage therapy” before a stem cell transplant. The treatment  pushed me into menopause prematurely and has damaged my heart and lungs. It was really full on. They give you enough chemotherapy to kill the cancer and then reboot your immune system.. And it worked. On April 17, I was five years cancer-free.

Today my daughter is 16 and my son is 13. We are a family who are very close as a result of this experience. We appreciate each other more.

Four people standing in front of a waterfall
In 2023, we had a trip of a lifetime touring the UK.

I feared the cancer would destroy their childhood but actually it has made them better people as they are more empathetic, they are hugely resilient, and they have such grit as a result of what we have been through.

When I was first diagnosed, what I really wanted was a picture book that I could read to my kids and explain what to expect with cancer treatment. I couldn’t find one. There were religious books, highly medical books or books about a mum dying.  But there was nothing about the mundane stuff about how cancer will affect a child’s everyday life at home.  Things like Mum’s going to be tired and she’s going to be grumpy and she needs a sleep.

So two years ago I wrote one and my talented friend Janet Croll illustrated it. Mum’s Purple Scarf aims to help others in the same situation. Now people are saying, “I hope you are going to send your book to Princess Catherine because she is exactly the sort of person you have written it for.” I’m going to stick it in the mail addressed to Kensington Palace – hopefully it gets there!

 Find out more about author Jane Gillard and her book, Mum's Purple Scarf.

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