“You have to be open with children about cancer, they’re smarter than you think”
How do you tell young children their mummy has cancer? Stephanie Dawson and her husband Christian decided to be honest – and involve their daughters in the journey as much as possible.
“It was a bit like the bottom fell out of life. The first thing I thought of was my daughters,” Stephanie says.
The West Aucklander knew she would have to approach it differently with Hannah, now eight, than she would for Isabelle, five. But ultimately she wanted to prepare them for the visible and physical changes she would go through.
“You’ve got to be open with kids, they're smarter than you think. You can't guarantee anything in life, you can only prepare them well,” Stephanie says.
“I remember telling Hannah, ‘ Mummy's breast isn't well’ and, and she said ‘Awh, Mummy have you got breast cancer?’ I was shocked that she actually knew the word. She was asking if I am going to die.”
Stephanie explained that she would need to have medicine to make it better. But that would mean she would sometime feel yucky, and she was going to lose her hair.
“For kids, that's a big change. They’re used to seeing mummy with long hair. When it came time for me to shave my hair off, we tried to make it a fun experience. I put the wig on and the girls were like, ‘Okay, I think this can be Mummy for a while’.
“My oldest girl said ‘Mummy, when you go up to school, can you please wear your wig?’ They want me to look like mummy as much as possible.”
That is why she signed up for a free Look Good Feel Better class, to help her look more herself at the school gate. The sessions are for anyone with any cancer at any stage of treatment and include tips and tricks to disguise the visible side effects of cancer, while helping restore a person’s confidence.
“Being able to do my eyebrows and have a bit of lippy sometimes when I'm looking a bit pale helped the girls to see Mum looking good and not always looking sick.”
Stephanie had just started her chemotherapy, the day after Hannah’s eighth birthday, and looked forward to the class. But she admits just turning up took all the energy she could muster.
“Once I walked through those doors and saw the smiling faces, I really started to feel better. Just being around others who are on similar journeys with cancer, and to see their courage. You feel so cared for, all the staff and the volunteers made it a really pleasant, lovely, loving experience.
“Just having other people really love on you and serve you and to feel normal-ish for a day - to take your eyes off the treatment, the doctors and the medical stuff and to be just you having fun and enjoying the environment.
“I felt confident that I had some of the tips to be able to do my eyebrows and put some foundation on to go out, feel good – and not feel that I wanted to just shut myself away because of how I was looking that day.
“When my hair all started to come out, was a very emotional. You can't help but cry when you don’t recognise yourself in the mirror. You have to dig deep.”
Diagnosis and treatment have resulted in Stephanie re-evaluating what is important in life. She had been juggling university studies for a vocational adviser qualification while working in the family business with [husband’s name] and being a stay-at-home mum.
“We won't look at life the same way again,” she says. “I have my big 40 birthday this year – this is probably not going to be as big a party as I would like it to be.
“I have surgery booked for mid-May. That can take at least 6 weeks before you can drive.
“When I finally get through that, I'm going to take a really good look at what I want in my life and my family's life. I am not scared to take a totally new direction.
“You can use cancer as a gift, make it really positive – it’s a stepping stone, not a stumbling block.”