Published by BBC NEWS - 2nd July 2023
  • Published
Hollie right of photo and her daughter Sydney smiling at the camera. You can see a glimpse of Hollie's book in the bottom of the frame.Image source, Hollie McFarlane

How am I going to tell my child? That was the first thing that crossed Hollie McFarlane’s mind when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She and her daughter Sydney, four, are very close and spent a lot of time together while Hollie’s husband worked away during the week.

Their weekly routine included the library, pizza night, swimming, McDonald’s and the zoo.

But eight months ago their lives “changed overnight”.

The 43-year-old from Pwllheli found a lump in her breast last October after putting Sydney back to bed after a nightmare.

“Everyone was saying to me ‘you’ve got absolutely nothing to worry about, you’ve lost weight and your body is just changing’,” Hollie said, but she booked a check-up anyway.

“The day came and I was absolutely convinced that it was nothing to worry about.”

But the English and Drama teacher was “absolutely floored” after seeing the look on her doctor and nurse’s faces.

Hollie sat in a hospital chair wearing a head scarf in hospital. She is smiling at the camera

Image source, Hollie McFarlane

Her husband, Mike, quit his job and didn’t leave the pair’s side for the next five months.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK and one in seven women are diagnosed during their lifetime, according to the NHS.

‘How am I going to tell her?’

“I tried my best to hide it from [Sydney] but she’s not stupid,” Hollie said.

“To go from me and her in our little bubble of energy, and then all of a sudden her dad’s home, her dad’s taking her to school. She knew something was going on.”

Hollie decided to take bits from MacMillan’s book Mummy’s Lump to try to help Sydney understand what she was going through.

The book, which is aimed at children aged 10 and under, includes a depiction of a mum looking in the mirror at her hair which has fallen out.

“Sydney looked at the page, looked at me, and just burst into tears at the realisation that this is my mummy,” she said.

“I told her ‘Mummy’s going to be fine’.”

A graphic advising you on how to check your breasts

Hollie soon went from running 62 miles (100km) each month to barely being able to walk down the stairs.

“Sydney would get very frustrated with me because she’s never seen me in bed like that,” Hollie said.

“She’d say ‘come on’ and pull the covers and try to drag me up to go on the trampoline.

“She missed out on so many things because I was poorly, it made me feel awful… guilty.”

These moments contributed to Sydney “really struggling”. Hollie said there was limited help for a child of Sydney’s age to deal with the realities of the diagnosis, and so decided to take matters into her own hands.

Years ago, Hollie started writing a book about a girl who had breast cancer, but she never thought that she would find herself as that girl years later.

Writing a new one to help Sydney consumed her mind.

A photo of Hollie laying on the grass outside smiling with long blonde hair before her cancer diagnosis

Image source, Hollie McFarlane

‘The last bit of the jigsaw’

The book Sometimes, Mummy feels… was written from Sydney’s perspective to help Hollie try to process what her daughter might be feeling.

“Whatever I’m feeling, I’ll go to that page and show it to her – I still have to go through radiotherapy,” she said.

Some may question when, how – and if – you should tell a child about your diagnosis. Charities including Cancer Research UK and MacMillan have a range of resources available to help.

For Hollie, she felt Sydney “needed to know something but didn’t need to know the details”.

She kept any cancer terminology out of the book and focused on the pair’s special moments together. Sydney’s favourite page depicts a moment the duo went to Chester Zoo following Hollie’s last round of chemotherapy.

Hollie wearing a headscarf and holding her book titled Sometimes, Mummy feels... with a smile on her face

Image source, Hollie McFarlane

“I think she knows the story is about me and her.

“It’s hard to explain to a four-year-old but I think she understands based on our experiences.”

At first, 10 copies were made for the family, but once Hollie posted the book to social media it was met with a hugely positive reaction from places as far as Australia and Denmark.

“If I’m able to help one more family… then I feel like something really positive has come out of a really negative situation.”

Two pages

Image source, Hollie McFarlane

‘Live each day’

To her relief, Hollie was given the all clear on 10 May this year. But her cancer journey is not over, as she is set to undergo preventative treatment and radiotherapy.

“The lesson I’ve learnt from this is that I have to live each day,” she said.

“Be happy and don’t stress, it’s just living in that moment and appreciating everything you’ve got around you.”

Hollie's husband Mike cuddling Sydney on the sofa. The photo has a black and white treatment.

Image source, Hollie McFarlane

And for Sydney?

“I will tell her everything once she’s old enough,” Hollie said.

“But for now, she’s come to this realisation that this book explains everything that’s happened to us as a family, and knows now that everything is going to be alright.”

If you have been affected by issues raised in this story you can find details of where you can get support at BBC Action Line.

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