Author Jane Gillard with the book she wrote about her experience, Mum’s Purple Scarf.

Book builds empathy at school

Words by Jane Gillard

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 to start chemotherapy a week after I was diagnosed.

I was so unwell that I could not hide my cancer from my children, Freya and Gordon.  He 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 would need to spend a lot of time away from our Montmorency home at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre for treatment.

We also chose to be open because we knew the kids needed support. They 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.

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 380 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 homelife.

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 journey to ours. 

I hope that his class was more understanding and empathic concerning cancer because the school choose to buy copies of my book to help create a better support network.

Mum’s Purple Scarf is available for $20 from