Life, but not as you knew it: Pregnancy, cancer and lights in the dark

There is never, ever a good time to get cancer, but having to face your own mortality while waiting to give birth to a new life is especially hard.  At Shine, we know a number of families who have had to cope with cancer while pregnant or shortly after birth. In our newest blog Hayley shares her story  of coping with bowel cancer while waiting to have her son.  It’s not something you read about very often (and quite frankly cancer and pregnancy seems like something that just shouldn’t be allowed!).  Take a read and let us know what you think.


Hayley pregnant

A heavily pregnant Hayley

My car keys made a nice, dramatic sort of jangle as they crashed to the floor. My purse too, made a satisfying crunch before skidding and coming to rest against the wall.

I must have made a dramatic scene: a large pregnant woman hitting the decks like that. Voices gathered in the darkness. Can we get her into a chair? Who is she? Can you hear me?

I heard myself protesting at being given a shot of morphine “I’m pregnant! I don’t want it”. The A&E staff were harried and unsympathetic; they hovered over me attaching lines, fussing and talking. A young doctor eventually presented me with a medical book to ‘prove’ pregnant women could have morphine if needs must. I didn’t try to read it.

The pain became more bearable and the scene came into focus. The A&E consultant came to talk to me. I told him I’d had bowel problems for years on and off….they kept telling me it’s irritable bowel syndrome (it’s not, and I still think today it is Crohn’s but that’s another story). He went off to look at his computer. They took a polyp from my bowel two weeks before and I hadn’t had the results.

I watched the doctor frowning at the computer, leaning in towards it as if getting closer would make what he was reading make more sense. He sighed, and came back to me and held my hand. And he told me: it was bowel cancer. Suddenly everyone who was looking after me changed. They all looked a bit sorry for me. They talked softly. They held my hand. ‘I’m going to die’ I thought and began to cry for my children and for my unborn child. How the hell could I be 32, pregnant and have bowel cancer? The world cracked and fell to pieces far too sharp to walk upon.

I was transferred to a ward where I talked to my surgeon to be. The colorectal nurse told me to go away and enjoy the rest of my pregnancy (because once I’d been induced early and had my baby, I was going to have a colonoscopy, be scanned, have a foot of my bowel removed and thus also be removed from my baby. And they wouldn’t be sure of the extent of the cancer until after the operation). So nothing to worry about then!

The rest of my pregnancy passed in a blur of worry, pain, Co-codamol and panic attacks.

One grey, rainy Sunday I became breathless. The out-of-hours doctor sent me to the hospital to be assessed and handed me a sealed envelope to take with me. It soon became a ripped open envelope: mmmm now lets see….differential diagnoses… Pregnancy normal symptom? Anxiety? Lung mets? LUNG METS…he wrote that?

All the way to the hospital I cried. I was certain it was lung mets and there was no hope.

But it wasn’t. I had to go through an x-ray (pregnant women can’t have x-rays) and a lung perfusion scan to make sure. I remember crying and one of the nurses talking to me about her mum who had died of breast cancer but had had nine years of fight before she succumbed. She had tears in her eyes as she told me the story. She gave me a bit of hope. She was pregnant too. I often wonder about her and am grateful for the way she treated me. They aren’t all like that.

One of the hardest things to take being a pregnant woman with cancer, was having to attend a million baby scans so they could keep an eye on the baby’s growth. Every time I had to sit in that waiting room full of happy expectant couples, texting their families on their phones ‘It’s a girl’ or whatever was torture. I sat there alone and scowled at the world. They had no idea what I was going through and I wanted to shout “I have cancer!” at the top of my voice and shock them all. I wanted to share my pain. You get some dark thoughts when you are in dark places.

The wait for the date for the induction of my labour was one of the hardest I have ever had to endure. The not knowing the extent of my disease, the worry about the operation, the impending separation from my baby tortured me day and night. There was no real life, only endurance. Every minute ached, every day hurt, every week burned.

Then we did it. We went through horrendous unnatural labour to meet my third child. We called him Monty. He is beautiful and is the light of my days. In those early days and nights at home I would cradle him and cry silently at the thought of being apart when I went into hospital for the operation. He was five weeks old when the date arrived. Another heartbreak. A deep, instinctual pain of separation: mother from newborn. It hurt so much I cannot describe it. My poor husband.

But time passes, doesn’t it. We endure pain, physical and mental. We wake up, we sleep, we cry and we smile. The next day always comes. I came home from the operation after five days in hospital. I ached all over, my bowels were not working in any shape or form, but I was going home. It was bliss.

They told me I was clear. I should have been relieved but somehow the reassurances were empty and hollow. I was numb. It meant everything but I felt nothing.

The story continues. More recent MRI scans I have found something on my liver – bile ducts that have closed off. The liver specialist thinks it might be PSC. It is not good news and there is no cure. PSC goes hand in hand with Crohn’s; tests for this are inconclusive and ongoing but I am pretty sure it’s there. More darkness.

The reason for my cancer was a genetic mutation, so I was always going to get bowel cancer at some point. Without regular screening and, at some point, having my whole colon removed, I will get it again. My children will have to be tested. It is possible they could share my mutation. Dark, dark, dark.

Hayley and Monty

Hayley and Monty

What I have gained out of all this is the knowledge that I can only do what I can do. I can only fight mentally. My body, the doctors, the scans will be what they are. The course of my diseases will be as they are, progress as they wish, all beyond my control. All I need worry about is my mind and how to keep it on the right path…acceptance, hope (but I’m a pessimist), openness, the making of new friends. Friends in the dark. Friends in my dark.

When it comes down to it, it is sort of alright to be in a dark place when other people are there lighting it a little with their stories, their struggles, and their smiles. I do not feel alone. And that is the biggest gift, to sit in the dark and be surrounded by shining lights.

 

Hayley is (nearly) 34 years old,a mum of three and a primary school teacher. She lives near Norwich in Norfolk where her 6 year old, 4 year old and 8 month old – together with a dog, cats, ducks and hens – keep her very busy!

Shine has a growing private online community that you can access via Facebook; many of our members have dealt with cancer in pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. If you’re looking for additional support with these issues, please also check out Mummy’s Star, a charity that provides information and financial support to families facing cancer in pregnancy and the first year after birth.

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