How do you tell your children the heartbreaking news you have cancer?
That’s the first question Jane Gillard, 48, had when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma.
The busy mum’s life changed after she booked an appointment with her doctor when she was struggling to breathe climbing a flight of stairs.
A complete shock diagnosis, Jane admits she struggled to know how to tell her children about the illness.
This led to her writing a book, Mum’s Purple Scarf, aimed at helping other parents in similar situations.
“Before the diagnosis, I had been doing a lot of cycling and walking and was fitter than I had been in years,” Jane said.
“I felt great – but then I caught a cold and couldn’t seem to shift a persistent cough.”
After an X-ray and a CAT scan, she was booked in for another appointment to discuss her results.
“He said it looked like lymphoma,” she said.
“I thought, what is lymphoma? Is that a cancer? And I was thinking ‘I don’t have time for cancer, there’s too much going on’.”
‘I knew I didn’t want to hide something this big from them’
Her doctor then explained she needed to clear her diary for all her medical appointments.
“I was just in total shock when I found out. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. How was I going to tell my two beautiful children?
“Freya was 11 and Gordon was 8. I had no idea what I faced but I knew I didn’t want to hide something this big from them,” Jane explained.
The journalist, who previously worked at the Evening Express, moved to Australia with her husband Scott Butler, of Newtonhill, in 2003.
They were enjoying their lives bringing up their two children in Melbourne when she was diagnosed in July 2018.
‘The cancer was everywhere in my body’
Jane was booked in for a PET scan which revealed her body was “riddled” with cancer.
“It was everywhere,” said Jane.
“I had tumours throughout my torso, my spleen had doubled in size and the cancer was in my bone marrow.
“My torso felt so full and tight like I was pregnant because all my organs were being pushed out of the way with the tumours.
“I was admitted to hospital days later to start chemotherapy.”
There was not much time in between her diagnosis and treatment, and Jane knew she and her husband had to tell their children soon.
Her oncologist said she shouldn’t lie to them, and that it was best to keep it simple and straight to the point.
Her mother-in-law Margaret Mulligan, of Newtonhill, was visiting the couple at the time and there were many whispered conversations at night trying to work out the next steps.
“The thing I found very frustrating was that when I was trying to prepare the kids for what they were going to face we couldn’t find any books,” said Jane.
“All the recommended books were talking about religion or dying because they were grief books.
“There was nothing that explained everything in a straight way and how it would affect kids and their everyday lives – and I didn’t even really know. There was nothing that started that conversation.”
Writing Mum’s Purple Scarf
Jane turned her hand to writing her own picture book while undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Mum’s Purple Scarf was written to help other parents tell their children what to expect when they are being treated for cancer.
Focusing on different topics, the book shows children who they can turn to for support and talks about their parent’s cancer treatment.
It was named after a purple scarf Jane wore on her head when her hair fell out as she was going through chemotherapy.
The book is illustrated with colourful pictures designed by Banchory-based graphic designer Janet Croll.
After it was written, Jane tested it out with nurses, teachers and cancer experts, including her own oncologist.
“Although I’ve had cancer, I’m not an expert in cancer,” she said. “I’m just someone who has experienced it so I wanted experts to check it to ensure that it was correct in line with what best practice is.
“It’s a book that has the backing of experts which was really important to me.”
‘I was pushed into menopause. I felt like I was nearly destroyed then rebuilt’
Jane underwent several gruelling chemotherapy treatments following her diagnosis then needed a stem cell transplant in April 2019 when she relapsed.
“For the stem cell transplant, I spent three weeks in the same hospital room,” she said.
“When I got home, I spent most of my time on the couch and was pushed into menopause.
“I felt like I was nearly destroyed and then rebuilt.”
‘I’m just grateful for what I have’
Just six weeks after the treatment she was told the good news that she was in remission.
Jane said her experience with cancer has changed her outlook on life and said her 47-year-old husband Scott had been such a “trooper” for coping with so much throughout their cancer journey.
She said: “I was always someone who wanted to travel, I was very impatient to get on with things whereas now I’m quite happy living a small life.
“I want to spend time with my kids; I want to spend time with my husband and I want to enjoy the time that we’ve got – and I don’t need to travel the world.
“I’m just really grateful for what I have.”
‘Hopefully it will help you have that incredibly difficult conversation’
Jane said her children have ironically never read her book, which she dedicated to her family, because they didn’t want to talk about when she was sick.
But she hopes it will now help many other families.
Jane stated: “If you need to have that conversation with your kids you can read this book to them and hopefully it will help you have that incredibly difficult conversation.”
‘She seems to be doing really well now’
Mother-in-law Margaret said she was proud of her son and daughter-in-law, adding that Jane’s diagnosis was a shock for everyone.
Margaret said: “It was a really hard time for them. She was remarkable to come through it and lucky.
“She seems to be doing really well now.”
Mum’s Purple Scarf is available at major online booksellers such as Waterstones, Amazon or the Book Depository.