Parenting Through Cancer

14 Jun 2023

Written by Rhea Felton.

At 34-years of age I was in the realm of motherhood. Feeling deeply grateful to experience carrying, birthing and nurturing my two daughters. We would spend our days watching the sunrise over an empty beach on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, having countless car boot brekky’s searching for dolphins along the coastline, cooking zucchini fritters and going for bush walks in search for a secret waterfall. If we were outside, we were happy. These moments along with the shushing and swaying in a blackout darkened room hoping for a sleep cycle to kick in or pacing the hallway at 3am with a wakeful (and playful!) baby in your arms; motherhood seemed to be a balancing gig of tiresome endless love.

This suddenly changed in February 2021 when I received the devastating news I had breast cancer. Fear rushed through my body and questions instantly flowed. None of which my doctor could answer in that moment; Will I see my children grow up? Am I going to survive? How am I going to tell my children? Will my husband be a widower? And then the questions about the cancer were posed; What treatment do I need? What are my options? And of course, what everyone candidly talks about, what are the statistics? It seemed like I had a bucket full of questions with little answers following.

The years I dedicated myself to learn how to be a mother were stripped out from under my feet. In a matter of a two-minute conversation, I was now a mother who was parenting through a serious life-threatening illness. It didn’t seem fair. The thought of co-navigating being a mum and my cancer treatment was terrifying. I was still trying to work out mum-life, how on earth was I now going to juggle this with surviving cancer?

“My medical appointments focused on my cancer. It seems obvious that they should, but I wanted more.”

My medical appointments focused on my cancer. It seems obvious that they should but I wanted more. I wanted to know how I can parent-well through cancer. I was still a mum, I was still parenting. Just now I was doing this with cancer. I needed to know how to support my children during the changes they were experiencing or going to experience as a result of my illness.

I found the suddenness of change most difficult to deal with. Within a matter of weeks from diagnosis, I was in the clutches of cancer treatment. As a mum who was always there, I now felt less available for my children both physically and emotionally. Added challenges presented with little hospital visits granted during COVID times. The emotional pain of not being the mum I had grown so much to love and cherish was devastating. At times, I felt like I was failing my children by not providing them the care I so deeply wanted to.

Any parent would say children understand information differently, even across a sibling group from the same family. Children have this wonderful ability to absorb their environment in a way that makes sense to them, and sometimes across a family there are similarities and other times differences. This is especially true with my girls. I knew I needed to speak about my cancer in a way that catered to their individual needs.

Having tough conversations is tough. But it was important to me that my girls had an opportunity to safely express their emotions, worries and ask questions about my illness. Life is not going to be all glitz-and-glamour (as much as I want to protect them), I know they are going to experience hardship in different ways. I knew offering an opportunity for them to share their story will allow me to understand their co-experience of my cancer and offer insight into the ways I can support their needs as we moved through our cancer storm together.

“Mum, why did you get breast cancer?” I couldn’t answer this. And I still can’t. I wasn’t afraid to share this with my children.

I am a mum, and like many mums out there, we are well accustomed in having a trillion ‘why’ conversations every day. Why are bananas yellow? Why don’t planes fall from the sky? Why do some birds have wings but don’t fly? And then came the big why question I couldn’t answer, “Mum, why did you get breast cancer?” With no known risk factors (apart from being female) or hereditary vulnerabilities, I couldn’t answer this. And I still can’t. I wasn’t afraid to share this with my children. It allowed me to demonstrate that we don’t need to know all the answers at once and we can learn new things every day. What was more important for me was to talk about what we did know, what we’d like to know and how we can move through this moment together.

After my diagnosis, I was eagerly seeking practical and simple child-focused resources that could help me have difficult conversations about my illness with my children. I was trying to translate medical-talk into child-talk and it was overwhelming. I kept thinking… wouldn’t it be helpful if there was something simple and practical I could use during discussions about my cancer with my children. This idea created Story Society. Story Society hopes to bring children’s experiences of having a loved one diagnosed with cancer to the forefront of family conversation, through the help of simple, child focused, creative and play-based practical resources.

Story Society’s bespoke range has been purposefully crafted through conversation with those who have had a lived-experience of cancer. Co-designing my range has been critically important to me, as it amplifies the purpose behind who they intend to support.

Image supplied by Story Society

I acknowledge parenting through cancer brings unique challenges to families and each family has their own way of approaching their cancer diagnosis. For those families who wish to share their illness with their children or are seeking further support in doing so, Story Society hopes to provide an added layer of support during this difficult time.

How I parent today has been deeply influenced by my cancer experience. It hasn’t made me a better parent, or a more available parent to my children but it has certainly altered my perspective on life. In particular, the daily rituals we share as a family, the intentional focus we place on experiences and our heightened eagerness to never stop searching for secret waterfalls!

Check out our blog for more resources on how to talk to children about cancer in our

Read how Fiona told her family about her cancer diagnosis.

This content is brought to you in partnership with Eli Lilly Australia and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope.