Kate was pregnant with her daughter Ava when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
I happily write this now, as my lovely little daughter sits on my lap and smiles up at me, but my pregnancy journey was far from easy.
My partner and I were super excited when we became pregnant in 2020 – it brought us so much joy during a challenging time. Like many others, we were living through Melbourne’s long lockdowns, isolating from our friends and family, and working extreme hours in response to COVID-19.
Ten weeks into my pregnancy, I started to have severe episodes of diarrhoea and constipation. There was blood in my stool, I was losing weight and I felt extremely tired.
Over the next two months, I saw my GP several times as well as a gastroenterologist. I had multiple tests at the hospital emergency department, but my symptoms were assessed as pregnancy related and I was advised to eat better and rest.
At home, I endured a particularly bad episode which saw me lose a lot of blood and I landed back in hospital.
The doctors were unsure about my condition. Initially, they suspected Crohn’s disease or another inflammatory bowel disease, which were treatable during pregnancy. But further tests finally revealed my diagnosis. I had stage two colorectal cancer – my tumour was the size of a baseball.
The situation felt dire. I was very scared that I was going to die, and so was my beautiful unborn baby.
It was the worst time of mine and my partner’s life. We had to sit with the uncertainty, and my condition worsened considerably as the stress and shock of what was happening started to set in.
To save my life – and our baby’s – I underwent extensive emergency open surgery. Through a 35cm incision on my stomach, the surgeon removed my womb with the baby inside while he and his team removed the tumour, installed a stoma and removed ovarian tissue, to preserve future fertility. They then placed my womb back in my body.
I stayed in hospital for the next fortnight. Fortunately, the cancer had not metastasised, and I didn't require chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Kate delivered Ava via caesarean due to the significant internal scar tissue resulting from her open surgery.
The complexity and urgency of my situation meant there was a lot of information to take in – and a lot of decisions to make quickly. Everything was affected by my pregnancy. Simple procedures, such as MRIs or colonoscopies, were complicated because I was unable to take certain medications, or I couldn’t lie in certain positions.
We were presented with a range of risks – miscarriage, termination, genetic risk of cancer to the baby, future fertility, location of the stoma, breastfeeding, the right birth plan. It was hard to hear and think about.
In my work life, I help plan for, respond to and recover from emergencies. I am used to insecurity, risk and making critical decisions. A large part of my role is to bring clarity into chaotic situations. But I found being diagnosed with cancer deeply unnerving. Everything was out of my control.
And yet despite the uncertainty, I delivered a healthy baby girl in March 2021. We named her Ava.
Happy and healthy baby Ava was born in March 2021.
Interestingly, when I look back on my experience, there are several things I did to regain control and to bring about some much-needed clarity.
I wrote down everything the medical team told me to ensure I remembered and could make joint decisions with my partner. I focused on 30 minutes at a time to stay present in the moment.
I practiced mindfulness at the start and end of every day, and repeated my mantra of ‘I am alive, baby is alive – today is a good day’. Lastly, I engaged with a small number of family and friends until I felt able to speak about my experience more broadly.
Kate practiced mindfulness to help manage her cancer diagnosis while she was pregnant.
In October 2021, nearly a year after my cancer diagnosis, I had further surgery to reverse the stoma and reattach my bowel. Recovery was very difficult, particularly with a 7-month-old baby and COVID-19 restrictions that prevented our family and friends from travelling interstate to provide help and care.
I feel deeply grateful that Ava and I survived cancer. I now understand that everyone’s experience of cancer is entirely different.
For those who are experiencing cancer during pregnancy, dig deep and fight. It will be the hardest and the best thing you ever do in your life.
Being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant is uncommon, but it does happen, and it can be a very overwhelming experience. To help support you or your loved ones to navigate both cancer and pregnancy, we've created a dedicated online resource, which includes information on treatment options, changes to birth plans, breastfeeding, termination and miscarriage, and future fertility.
It also includes connections to reputable and trusted support services, and more stories from women who have personally been diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. For more information, call 13 11 20 to speak to our compassionate cancer nurses.