It was two years ago in February 2017 that I found out I was expecting my second child. My husband and I were over the moon; we had been trying for a couple of years. The very next day I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. They tell me breast cancer during pregnancy is rare but two women a day are diagnosed with cancer in or around pregnancy. Cancer Research UK says it is reported in 1 in every 3,000 pregnancies and most women are aged between 32 and 38 years-old at diagnosis. I was 37.
I have never felt ready to discuss what happened next but our lives were quickly turned upside down forever. I was immediately thrown into a rollercoaster of treatment. My breast cancer was strongly oestrogen positive and there was a fear that the pregnancy hormones could cause my cancer to grow. My husband and I faced a terrible decision. I needed to have chemotherapy immediately but my baby was less than 12 weeks old and they don’t recommend chemo before 14 weeks. My cancer had already spread into all of my lymph nodes under my arm and was particularly aggressive.
I remember during my first pregnancy how careful I was not to drink caffeine or alcohol and now I was being told that chemotherapy was safe after the first trimester. It was hard to accept.
The cruel irony of cancer treatment is it can also make you infertile. Because I was pregnant already, there was no time to freeze my eggs. My husband and I were very aware that we would probably never have another chance to have any more children. I can’t begin to describe how awful it is for anyone to receive a cancer diagnosis but being pregnant, made it even more devastating.
Mummy’s Star is the only charity in the UK and Ireland dedicated to women and their families affected by cancer during pregnancy and after a birth. The founder Pete Wallroth set up the charity in memory of his wife Mair who was also diagnosed during pregnancy and later died. Pete was incredibly kind and spoke to me regularly to give me advice and support during this time. A cancer diagnosis can make you feel very alone but he totally understood what we were going through because he had been through it already with his family.
I was nervous about the impact of treatment on our baby, I was also worried it would cause my cancer to progress and leave my husband and daughter with a newborn baby and without a mother. But I was so very tempted to try. After a lot of soul searching, many tears and lots of wondering about the unfairness of the situation (why had this happened to me? why not me, I later realised) I decided I had to give myself the best chance of recovery and of being a mother to my young daughter.
One day I was pregnant, the next day I wasn’t. My body had no time to recover or grieve.
I was given 6 cycles of FecT chemotherapy every three weeks. I decided to think of the chemotherapy zapping away the cancer a bit like a computer game – Pac-Man gobbling up all of the bad cells. Zap, zap, zap. I felt terrible during chemotherapy. I couldn’t eat, I was physically sick, I could barely walk. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be pregnant as well. I should have been getting ready for maternity leave and breastfeeding, instead I had all of the lymph nodes removed under my left arm, a mastectomy and then 15 sessions of radiotherapy. Five weeks after my operation, I was told I’d had a complete pathological response. This was the best possible news. It meant there were no signs of cancer in either the breast or the nodes that were removed. The tumour was completely eradicated by the chemo. Pac-Man really did gobble up those cancer cells.
It takes some getting used to, to be told there is no evidence of disease after months of living in a state of heightened anxiety and worry. I have chemo injections every three weeks in my thigh and I start taking a hormone treatment that’s going to be part of my daily routine for the next five-to-10 years in an effort to prevent the cancer returning. Together, though, these produce menopausal symptoms. Hot flushes and night sweats are two more things I didn’t think I’d be dealing with in my 30s.
Some women do go on to have children after treatment. Doctors suggest waiting two years to make sure that any damaged eggs exposed to chemotherapy, are no longer in the body. Unfortunately it is not an option for me because of my age and treatment that has made me post-menopausal.
Two years on my little girl is nearly six. There is currently No Evidence of Disease in me. To keep me well, I take a daily tablet, have a monthly ovarian suppression injection and regular bisphosphonates. I hardly remember how life was pre-cancer treatment. I have periods of extreme depression and anxiety. I continue to live with the side effects of cancer treatment and the pain of losing a baby grows too. I wonder regularly if I made the right decision? People tell me I should be grateful to be alive, and of course I am incredibly grateful but often I can’t help but think about the precious life that I lost.
Mummy’s Star is the only charity in the UK and Ireland dedicated to women and their families affected by cancer during pregnancy shortly after a birth. Their aim is to support pregnancy through cancer and beyond. More specifically the charity focuses on supporting women and families where the:
- Woman is diagnosed or treated for cancer during her pregnancy.
- Woman is diagnosed or treated for cancer within a year of her giving birth.
- Family in the first year of a birth lose their female partner as a result of cancer.
It’s Cancer and Pregnancy Awareness Week 17th-23rd June. Visit Mummy’s Star to see how you can help by raising awareness or get involved with important fundraising.