Imagine celebrating your son's third birthday knowing that his life was about to change dramatically.
That's what my beautiful friend Katrina Lau Hammond was going through almost five years ago when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
The year of 2016 was already shaping up to be a big year for Katrina and her family.
In March, she gave birth to Mackenzie five weeks premature. The 34-year-old cookbook author was juggling a newborn, her tempestuous two-year-old Justin and all the chaos that goes with young kids.
"When I found a tiny lump in my breast, I assumed it was a blocked duct," Katrina explains. "Health professionals initially agreed, and some were adamant it was mastitis. I tried many things yet the whole breast continued to harden."
After exploring various treatments to no avail, it became obvious it was more serious. In November 2016, doctors gave Katrina the devastating diagnosis.
"In less than two weeks, I had to stop breastfeeding and start chemotherapy. Later I had radiotherapy, surgery, targeted therapy and hormone therapy."
While no cancer is a walk in the park, Katrina's journey has been particularly gruelling. Seven months after her initial diagnosis, doctors found a lump in her other breast.
She had a double mastectomy, then more rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat the second cancer. Later she returned to hospital and had a DIEP reconstruction using her own tummy tissue.
"In 2019, Justin was navigating his first year of school, Mackenzie had started day care and I was building on my recovery," Katrina says.
"We were just getting into the swing of 'normal life' when I discovered in August that the cancer had spread. I now had metastatic cancer. Some people call it terminal cancer but I prefer the term life-limiting."
The Hammond's lives became a whirlwind of treatment and hospital visits once again.
In November 2020, the cancer spread even further to the lungs, brain and spine, putting pressure on Katrina's heart and leaving her breathless. She had to have heart surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and she now receives regular ongoing targeted therapy.
"This last scare was a brutal reminder of the fragility of life. And it helped me focus on the legacy I want to leave behind."
When Katrina was first diagnosed, she was looking for an appropriate picture book to help her kids understand what was going on. But she couldn't find anything that met their needs.
"At the time, I vowed I would write my own picture book in the hope it would help other families with young kids going through a similar battle. I even started it but hadn't decided on an illustrator or publishing route yet," she said.
Five years later, amid ongoing treatment, tests, surgeries and child-rearing, she's finally done it. And I've got to tell you, I'm so proud of her.
The Village is a gorgeous picture book for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. It's told through the point of view of the child and aims to reassure and comfort.
"I want the book to be something that doesn't gloss over the reality or dumb it down," she explains. "You know what kids are like – they're super inquisitive and perceptive to changes that are going on.
"I believe that if you try to hide the truth, the fear in their mind can be much scarier than what's going on in reality. By explaining the facts in simple, age-appropriate language, even using the correct medical terms, I hope children will be more informed and less afraid."
Her ultimate message is a timeless reminder about the importance of having a village when it comes to parenting.
"The key thing I want to explain to kids is that they'll never be alone. When a parent falls ill, the Village comes out to help - grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, teachers, neighbours."
Whether it's making a meal, doing some laundry or having them over for sleepovers, the book helps kids understand what it means to have a Village.
"Let's face it, no one wants to tell their kids they have cancer. Unfortunately, sometimes, you have to. I hope that reading this book together will make it a little easier."
For more details and to preorder, visit thevillagekidsbook.com