Updated: May 16
A cancer diagnosis shatters the foundations of your life – but as a mother of two young children – it was different. I knew cancer could destroy their childhoods and affect their whole adult lives.
The mum is often the glue that holds the collage in place. Your news is likely to come with a whole set of challenges beyond your health because you have a central role in other people’s lives - a parent, a wife, and daughter.
Every person has a different story to tell about what they did when they received their diagnosis, how they told those first few people – here’s mine.
When I was first told I might have cancer in a GP’s office on a Tuesday afternoon my immediate thought was:
“I don’t have time for cancer”.
My mind went to the practicalities. I couldn’t see how cancer would fit in with my incredibly busy life. I was working two part-time jobs and had two children. My 7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter also had busy lives with playdates and after school activities.
I couldn’t fit anything else into the calendar – even cancer. But the doctor was having none of it.
“You will have to make time. “You are going to spend a lot of time at the hospital,” he said.
I simply couldn’t see how this was going to work… for anyone. I was referred to the hospital and told I was going to need some more tests done. Then, I had to wait.
The GP was at the top of my street so I walked home in a daze. It was a chilly, winter afternoon and I was due to pick my daughter from a party. At the back of my mind, I knew I had a limited time to panic and then gather myself together before I picked her up.
So, I stood in the cold outside my house and cried.
Cancer was a bomb that exploded in the heart of our family – destroying all the assumptions I had about my life.
I assumed I would live into my 80s, that I would see my children get jobs, marry, that I would meet my grandchildren. All of that was gone in seconds.
I knew how cancer went. Growing up, my best friend’s Dad had cancer and he died within months. Another childhood friend had a mum who was “lucky”. She died slowly. The cancer completely dominated her kids’ childhoods for 12 years before leaving them with an irreplaceable hole in their lives.
My mother-in-law, Margaret, lives overseas and was staying with us. She was looking after my son inside the house. I knew I didn’t have long to grieve for the assumptions I had about how my life would pan out. I struggled to bring this terror that I felt under control.
I phoned my husband, Scott, at work and told him. He dropped everything and he was coming home.
My neighbour, Anna, saw me in the garden. She knew something was seriously wrong and gave me a hug and looked as shocked as I felt when I told her.
But then I had to go. A mum is always on the run.
I had to pick up my daughter. So, I plastered on a smile and went inside to say hello before picking up the car keys and driving to the party.
Once the kids were both home, I pretended nothing had happened, as though the rug had not been pulled out from under my feet and that I was still living my normal boring suburban life.
I tried to appear calm by my mind was racing, running through the logistics of how I could juggle cancer into my life and trying not to panic about leaving my kids.
Once the kids were in bed, Scott and I told Margaret. But there wasn’t much to tell her. It looked like lymphoma but I need more tests and had to wait for an oncology appointment. All I could do now was wait for the hospital to call me tomorrow. Margaret was able to support us during those awful first dark days.
I needed time to absorb the information before I spoke to my children. I also needed more information which only the tests and hospital could tell me.
I delayed telling my own parents, who live in Tasmania, until the following day when I was calmer. I spoke to my brother first and he was able to help my parents cope with the news.
The hospital did call the next day and told me what the plan was. Within a week I had an appointment, PET scan, and blood tests done. Within a fortnight, I was in hospital receiving my first dose of chemotherapy.
What I didn’t know then, is that cancer treatment had changed a lot in 30 years and mortality rates have improved enormously. Cancer has not been beaten but there have been enormous medical improvements in treating it. My prospects were so much better than my friends’ parents in the 1980s.
I am so grateful that I am still here.
It is now four years after that awful afternoon when everything changed forever. Writing about my diagnosis is still emotionally draining but I believe it is important to share my story to help others.
When I was diagnosed, I spend time looking for other people’s stories to see how they coped. I was looking for help to know what to do and how to cope with my own diagnosis. These stories helped me and that is why I am telling my story to help someone else like me.
Jane Gillard is the author of Mum's Purple Scarf, a children's book to help prepare kids for a parent's cancer treatment. She lives in Melbourne.