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How to talk about your cancer in the school community

Should you tell your child's school you have cancer? How do you tell your child's teacher you have cancer?

Talking about cancer in the school community is difficult. There are risks but there also enormous rewards.

Here's the story of why I chose to be open and tell my children's teachers and school that I had cancer.

My daughter, Freya, was 11 when she confided in a friend that she had a terrible news to share.

“My mum has cancer”, she whispered during a library session at school.

Unfortunately, another child overheard and informed my daughter that her grandmother had died of cancer so Freya should "enjoy the time she had left" with me.

This primary school exchange haunted me and is why I have been so driven to change the conversation about cancer – especially in schools.

My cancer diagnosis in July 2018 had left our family reeling. My lymphoma was so aggressive and advanced that I was hospitalised a week after I was diagnosed to start chemotherapy.

I was so unwell that I could not hide my cancer from my children, Freya and Gordon, who was then 8. My spleen had doubled in size, tumours riddled my body and the cancer was in my bone marrow.

Telling my children that I had cancer was the worst thing I have ever done.

My husband, Scott, and I chose to be open about the diagnosis in the school community because our family needed help.

It was clear that I had to spend a lot of time at Olivia Newton John Cancer and Wellness Centre for treatment away from our Montmorency home.

We also chose to be open with the school because we knew the kids needed support. Our children needed to be able to speak to their teachers about what was happening at home. They also needed to be able to speak to their friends and their friends’ parents.

My cancer affected my children too and it was important that they knew they were supported by the school community.

Being open about my cancer diagnosis and treatment in the school community meant that I was able to talk out it - and so were my kids. The teachers were able to intervene when issues arose or when the kids needed extra support. The principal offered to give the kids a lift home if I was in hospital and gave me his mobile number so I could call if I ever needed help.

We also received many, many meals, generously donated by caring mums who didn't even know me. We all felt very supported.

Cancer treatment today is very different to what it was 30 years ago. Cancer survival rates have improved and more people are surviving and living with cancer. Cancer also affects many parents of primary school-aged children.

Despite this, there are not a lot of resources for young children to help them make sense of their Mum or Dad’s cancer.

That is why I wrote a picture book to help prepare children for the changes cancer brings into the home. The book was reviewed by Cancer Council Victoria and my oncologist, and tested with cancer patients, teachers and children.

In August 2021, I self-published the book and I have since sold 440 copies. I also donate $1 of every copy sold to Cancer Council Victoria.

Mum’s Purple Scarf is the book I wanted when I told my children I had cancer.

It deals with hair loss, cancer fatigue, extra chores and playdates and who kids can talk to.

The pictures, by Janet Croll, are bright and colourful and, despite the subject matter, there is a lot of humour.

It is a book about cancer, but it is also about resilience and love.

My aim was to also build empathy and support in the school community as other children could read about the experience and can understand a little of how cancer affects home life.

My children’s school, Watsonia Heights Primary School, in Greensborough, was a big supporter of the book and bought 10 copies. The librarian told me the books are popular with primary school children of all ages.

It is now four years since cancer left my body but cancer is still all too common.

Last year, my son was in his final year of primary school. Two other children in his class had been through a similar cancer journey to ours.

I hope that his class were more understanding and empathetic of how a parent's cancer affects a child's home life because the school choose to buy copies of my book to help create a better support network for their students.

Cancer Council has a booklet, Cancer in the school community, which has information about how to deal with cancer. It has resources and tips for adults on how to approach cancer in the school community - whether it is a student, staff member or parent.

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