My third child, Leo, was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was five years old. We didn’t tell the kids straightaway – we needed time to digest the news ourselves. I couldn’t even tell my parents.
Leo knew he was sick because he felt so sick. We told him he was in the best place and that the doctors and nurses would help to make him better. That was enough at first.
Because Leo’s siblings were such different ages, I told them individually, but the key messages were the same: Leo hadn’t done anything to cause the leukaemia, it’s not contagious, and he would get well – it was important to offer hope. I told them that Leo would look different because of the treatment and that it would take a long while.
We wanted all the kids to feel involved with Leo’s treatment – we said, “You are part of the team, you are part of this.” The hospital became part of our family life.
Throughout Leo’s treatment, it was so hard to plan. We just had to say, “Let’s see what tomorrow brings.” Two years of that. You think it’s never going to end.
It was such a joyful day when the treatment finally finished. I had never allowed myself to look that far ahead. Leo had a ‘no more chemo’ party at school. Leukaemia treatment is so socially isolating, and it was just wonderful to see people embrace the family and to see Leo so engaged with school and friends.
Now that treatment is over, every day matters. It may not be a good day, but all days are important. We’ve all learnt not to write off time – you don’t put things off. It’s a good life lesson.
I’m really proud of all four of my children. Despite all the hardship, there has been a lot of growth for them. They are more resilient and have developed strength and compassion. Leo’s siblings pulled him through, and we all pulled through together as a family.
Genevieve, mother of four children aged 3, 5, 10 & 14
When I was 14, Dad developed a bad cough. I remember sitting in my older sister’s lounge room on a Sunday afternoon. Dad was coughing. I knew they were going to tell us something because they were sitting down.
Dad just told us straight: “I have cancer.” Mum tried to sugar-coat it and said there were things they could do, but I was thinking the worst. It’s the great fear – death and dying – and I just thought, “He’s going to die.” I wanted to run. I wanted to do something. I thought if I could just do something, that would change it. I joined CanTeen the next day.
Right from the start, Dad said, “I might be the one with cancer, but you are going to be affected by it, so we will make decisions as a family. We’re going to fight this – one in, all in.”
We were sitting in my sister’s lounge room again when Mum told me Dad was dying. I was like, “Are you serious? This can’t be true.”
From when Dad was first diagnosed with lung cancer to when he died was only four months. It was just so quick. The prognosis kept getting worse – first they said it was 12–18 months, then 3–4 months, then 48 hours.
I wasn’t there when he died. I went to a netball dinner. I didn’t want to be around it – that’s not how I wanted to remember him, it’s not what he was like. Dad told me, “Do what makes you feel comfortable. Do the things you need to do to cope.”
When your parent dies, it’s like a snow globe has fallen off a bench and cracked and snow is going everywhere. But the cracks get mended, maybe with sticky tape, and the snow slowly calms down.
Izzy, 15-year-old whose father had cancer
I tried to get some rest during the day so that I was bright and more energetic when the family came home from school and work in the evening. I didn’t want them to feel they had a sick mum all the time – I was only sick from the treatment, not from the disease itself.
It was important to spend time together as a family. Special times together often opened up questions for the kids.
Talking is not the only way of communicating about feelings – in fact, it often goes over the head of a young child. When my kids were younger, it worked better to use dolls or stuffed animals to play out being sick, having treatment and getting well again.
Liz, mother of three children aged 10, 16 & 18
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of last year, when I was 15. It was the first day of school and she told me when I got home. I thought she was just going for a check-up. I imagined the worst, I thought she was going to die.
It’s just me and Mum, and we didn’t really have any support. I broke down in tears in front of people at school the next day. My year adviser and student welfare officer took me into an office and talked to me.
I didn’t want to share my mum’s diagnosis with everyone. Mum and I are both really private. I didn’t want people to treat me differently.
Some friends tried to support me but I pushed them away. I shut out a lot of friends and kept to myself. I didn’t have anyone who really understood. The only person I was really close to was Mum but I couldn’t tell her how I felt. One friend would ask how I was going but I’d snap at her because I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to know about it.
I took on the role of Mum’s carer. I had to learn how to iron, cook, wash clothes, hoover. It was a lot of effort, but it has made me more determined and stronger. Sometimes I feel like I have taken on a more motherly role. I’m more mature now.
I kept up my attendance at school, but my grades dropped a lot. I couldn’t focus in class and I wasn’t engaged. I had so much going on in my head and I’d stew in my thoughts. If Mum was having a bad day, it would affect me.
Mum and I were close before, but now we are even closer. She relied on me. If she was scared, I’d have to comfort and console her. I don’t rely on her as much now. I still like getting her advice, but I’m more independent.
I’ve changed a lot, I’m more positive and motivated now. Last year was about Mum, and this year I’m focusing on my goals.
Emma, 16-year-old whose mother had cancer