Our little pocket rocket Lindsay Violet was 16 months when breast cancer brought our happy little world crashing down around us.
We hit it with surgery, with a debilitating regime of chemotherapy, with radiotherapy and with five years of hormone therapy. We also came at it with organic vegetables, humour, laughter, love and dancing in the kitchen. We coined the phrase back then that cancer didn’t make us laugh any less, but we cried more.
Five years later, when our little girl was nearly seven years old we begin to allow ourselves to entertain the fantasy of having another baby. As Capricorns … we like to talk things out, there is no spontaneity over here in ‘Camp Capricorn’. The relevant council was sought, the medical teams were questioned and we eventually decided that we would give it a shot, with hope but not desperation. With so many question marks on pregnancy even being achievable, Camp Capricorn put a date on it, there was to be no long winded agonising 10 year battle to add to our family, we gave it six months and if it didn’t happen, we would move on in our happy little threesome.
It happened. With a good two months to spare, it happened. We were expecting a baby. Incredibly guarded, we sat on our news for 18 weeks and the festive season felt like the right time to tell the rest of the family. We found out Christmas morning that we were having a boy, and we nicknamed him Roy The Boy. A little boy to welcome into the family, it was all too much excitement and not only excitement, an element of fear at the thought of going back to INFANCY! Lack of sleep. Rhyme time on the mat… ugh. Our life was so easy! Sleep so good! Toilet training was so hard. Lamaze toys are so bright and clash with… everything!
“Cancer has brought me to my knees not once, but twice now. It has taught me to never take things for granted, to never sweat the small stuff, to embrace laughter and happiness, regardless of how shitty things seem.”
But cancer knows better than any how to put worries in their place … and remind you that sleepless nights and toilet training are not legitimate fears. At 23 weeks pregnant, it returned. I was blind sighted by a call from our surgeon on the back of a CT scan for persistent rib pain. “Karen, I’m so sorry, we’ve got some trouble”. I’ll never forget that sentence, just as my husband Mark will never forget the one I gave to him over the phone, broken and shaking on the lounge room floor. I have no memory of what I said but what I thought was this; I’m going to die. I’m going to have a baby boy that will never know me, leave my husband as a single parent to a newborn and snuff the amazing spirit from my sparkly seven year old by dying on her.
After three days and three nights of uncontrollable sobbing and clinging to each other, we put an end date on that too. On day four we put on our game face and fronted up to my Oncologist to hear what her plan was. Just as long as she doesn’t say chemo … surely she won’t say chemo?
“Chemo is our only option while you are pregnant”. And another small part of my resilience died. Oh really, the irony wasn’t lost on us. Don’t drink more than one coffee and go easy on the tuna they say, but four intravenous infusions of Epirubicin and Cyclophosphomide Cytotoxic Chemotherapy drugs … no worries!
We focussed on knocking off each chemo round and recovering as quickly as possible. How many weeks they were going to let me go was up for debate – 34 was initially the plan but given our good clinical response to chemo we had our sights set for at least 37, hopefully 38.
I finished chemo at 33 weeks pregnant and discussions turned to the birth. How? When? White blood counts? Baby size? etc. If my blood count dropped and I got an infection, I would likely go into labour and Roy The Boy would be born with a crappy blood count too. The plan was, stay well, have a natural birth (but induced), labour (but not too long) and avoid a C-Section at all costs (but don’t push too hard as it could put too much pressure on my chest and cause a bleed). Hmmm ok. A piece of cake.
“I was all out of brave. I’d been brave for the last three months carrying my baby though four rounds of chemo, I’d been brave through all of the unknowns…I was done.”
It took a lot of effort to concentrate and get excited about the pregnancy journey. It was in danger of being overshadowed at every turn, but we tried really hard to compartmentalise the different parts of what was happening in our lives. Poor Roy The Boy, we were on such a journey together already!!
Our scan at 34 weeks was as expected, small baby sitting on the 8th percentile, where he has been all along, super cute and all vitals brilliant, so we set our sights for a 38 week induction. We waltzed into the 36 week scan completely relaxed. I could feel every move Roy The Boy made and given the activity levels in there I assumed all was well. When the Radiologist came in to see us after the scan she opened with “Ok so your baby is small”. Yeah we know, he’s fine! She continued “No, since your last scan your baby has dropped from the 8th percentile to the 1st percentile, are you seeing your OB today?”
Floored again, tears again, what have I missed? Have I not noticed I wasn’t bigger? We just stayed focussed on the vitals, he was ok, but we went home and we packed a hospital bag, we totally knew we were just about to have a baby. My head space wasn’t amazing and every little set back was getting on top of me, from a drama attempting to break my waters, to a failed drip line attempt in my only good vein, to not connecting with either of our midwives.
I was really starting to struggle with the lack of recovery time in between contractions and the OB was concerned that Roy The Boy wasn’t super happy about it either. We were at the five hour mark and on examination I was secretly gunning to be seven centimetres dilated, yet was telling myself conservatively I would be five. So two centimetres came as a bit of a shock. Understatement, I lost it totally… what the hell? How could that be? I thought being induced was meant to be quick and intense not insanely slow but intense. The midwife gave me no clue when I asked her advice on my ability to do this on my own, so I turned to Mark. I felt like everything had come crashing down on me, I had nothing mentally left to draw upon. I was all out of brave. I’d been brave for the last three months carrying my baby though four rounds of chemo, I’d been brave through all of the unknowns, and I’d been brave when I found out 12 hours ago my baby had to arrive early. I was done, I couldn’t cope anymore and part of me knew that my only option to see this out without a C-section was to try an epidural. I had to be brave to surrender to the epidural and I fought it all the way. The voice of reason and calm and of strength again was there in Mark. I listened.
Five hours later, Mark and I started talking to our little man. We told him, it’s ok out here, we can’t wait to meet you, we love you and we will look after you. It’s time to be born now little Roy The Boy. Within 20 minutes we were ready to welcome him into the world. Everything was calm, relaxed and focussed. We kept speaking to him and encouraging him and mid pushing I even started laughing at something Mark said and the OB said “keep laughing, let’s laugh this baby into the world”. And we did, we giggled little Oliver Mack into the world at 10pm Friday 19th May. He is perfect! We are so in love.
“I’m going to die. I’m going to have a baby boy that will never know me, leave my husband as a single parent to a newborn and snuff the amazing spirit from my sparkly seven year old by dying on her.”
I’m a little sketchy on the barrage of tests we had post baby. There was a CT scan, there was radioactive dye, there were bone scans, there was blood, the whole process took a whole day. I was ok until the bone scan and that one rocked me. I walked out of that shaken and sore. It was a Wednesday, we had our appointment with our Oncologist on Friday to discuss the results from the scans. I clarified with her reception, “She WON’T ring will she? I’m not to expect a call from her? … “At all…regardless…she won’t call?” No I was told, she will speak to you Friday.
Wednesday night I fell apart. Whatever my future was or wasn’t had been identified and now I just had to wait to hear the results. Holding Oliver was in equal parts saving and breaking me. I didn’t sleep, we sat on the couch and Mark held it together while I just cried. The fear I felt that night was immense. I went into Thursday with zero ability to communicate with anyone and zero filter. I just cried, pretty much the entire day. The nursery staff who were all over our ‘situation’ were amazing, but that day I had nothing. I had to apologise and remove myself from the nursery when the Paediatrician was trying to get another IV line in Ollie. I sat with Mum in the café and just sobbed. She asked if there was anything she could do and I clearly remember saying “unless you have a crystal ball and can tell me if I’ll see my kids grow up, there is nothing you can do”. It was a harsh thing to say to your mother, and any other day I wouldn’t have said it, but I was in such a state, I had no ability to monitor my own thoughts and words.
We fronted up calmly at the oncology ward. It was such a looong walk down the passage from the reception to the office. The Oncologist didn’t mess around, I can’t remember exactly what she said but something along the lines of “your scans came back ok, there are no other tumours”. OH MY GOD WHY DIDN’T YOU RING US!!!???!!! The relief was just immense. IMMENSE. Oliver has a good chance of knowing his mum. Why didn’t she ring us?! I know why, I understand why, and I know, better than most, she knows the stakes, but until you are here, until it’s your life on the line. OMG just a text message “scans ok, not facing imminent death, speak on Friday”. Just saying.
Anyway, best day ever. She told us that the next step would be getting the green light on surgery, which would be a sizeable undertaking. We saw the plastic surgeon who thought having an replacement sternum was the way forward. Ok lets do it. Final discussions were had between plastics and cardiothoracic and the 3D printers and a titanium sternum was a GO.
“Mark and I started talking to our little man. We told him, it’s ok out here, we can’t wait to meet you, we love you and we will look after you….I even started laughing at something Mark said and the OB said keep laughing, let’s laugh this baby into the world.”
We relaxed a little and decided that this time, now that we knew things were in check and the surgery options were going to take a little while to work though, was time to enjoy our newborn, without fear and angst, just to be in the moment. Feeds, snuggles and sleeps.
I knew when I woke up from surgery, I would be cancer free again. Also, five years ago, or even two to three years ago, this option would not have been available. But how did I feel about surgery? Grateful, excited, and absolutely scared shitless all at the same time.
Cancer has brought me to my knees not once, but twice now. It has taught me to never take things for granted, to never sweat the small stuff, to embrace laughter and happiness, regardless of how shitty things seem. I thank it for all of this, because it has made me a more resilient, patient, gracious, and understanding person. But it has also made me a formidable opponent because it’s shown me just what I have to lose.
I will throw everything at it. I will throw myself, all of my conscious and unconscious energy, my thoughts, my love, my determination, my strength and grit, and fight for us and our two babies. I will surround us in a force field of oestrogen blockers, organic vegetable, essential oils, exercise, meditation and hypnotherapy.
I’ll rock a titanium sternum, pretend I’m wonder-woman, and reminisce about how far I’ve come, how strong I feel, and how well I am. Because we are enough, we are more than enough to face cancer and to destroy it.
To quote Robbie Williams, “I love my life, I am powerful, I am beautiful, I am free”.