‘I’m pregnant and I have cancer’

Elouise Hemming is 25 weeks pregnant with a baby girl she’s already named Ava. Six weeks ago she discovered she had cancer. She is just 24.

Extraordinarily, mother and baby are expected to survive.

“They caught it early,” she said.

To save both their lives, Hemming, born in Cardiff in the UK but now living in New Zealand, had to start chemotherapy immediately.

“If I had left it another five months, I would have been dead within a year.”

There is only a small risk to her baby because her pregnancy is sufficiently advanced; the placenta provides a primary barrier for drugs getting to the baby, but some can get through and be potentially dangerous, said Dr John Carter from the haematology department of the Capital and Coast DHB.

“The most critical time for baby is those first 12 to 14 weeks,” he said. “That is when the baby is laying down most of its organs and, if drugs are going to cause damage, that is the most vulnerable period.”

There is a small chance the treatment could cause foetal death, an early delivery or low birth weight. The most recent ultrasound showed Ava’s heart and lungs were perfectly formed.

Although the risk is low, Hemming feels guilty about taking the chemotherapy treatment. If she had to choose between her life and that of her child’s, there would be only one choice.

“I would pick Ava. There would be no thought about myself.”

Seven months ago, Hemming noticed a small red cyst under her breast. She didn’t think anything of it until the lump became sore during exercise.

She saw five different doctors as the growth kept getting bigger. The cancer was not picked up until the tumour began to grow rapidly and she was diagnosed with aggressive stage 2 type T lymphoma – a disease where malignant cancer forms in the lymph cells of the immune system.

Hemming is going through this alone as her relationship with the baby’s father ended before she knew she was pregnant.

“There are times, especially at night, when it all gets too much. But the thing about me having all the information, knowing the outcomes – the grief hasn’t hit me because I feel I’m in control,” she said.

The biggest fear for the baby is her vulnerability to the side effects of the drugs. The chemotherapy will deplete Hemming’s white blood cells that attack bacteria, making her vulnerable to infections like septicaemia or pneumonia. And if mum gets sick, it can be dangerous for the baby.

She had her first session of chemotherapy two weeks ago. Her next dose is this week.

Her hair has already fallen out.

“It’s ironic, because in March I shaved my head for children’s leukaemia. My friend’s brother had leukaemia,” she said.

For the former gym junkie, who was in her final semester of a degree in psychology and mental health, keeping her mind and body occupied is her biggest issue.

She has stayed busy by knitting for her baby and researching a lot about lymphoma, chemotherapy and pregnancy. She has closed her Facebook profile to avoid sympathetic posts on her wall.

“That is the hardest bit. I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. I don’t want to be a victim.”

While breast cancer and cervical cancer are well-publicised risks for women, Hemming wants other women not to be over-confident with their health.

“I really want women to learn from this, if they have any health concerns, make sure your GP hears you,” she said, especially as she believes doctors were too quick to dismiss her concerns because she was in such good shape.

“I got really angry. There are people who smoke every day, eat crap, and I look after myself. I don’t believe in karma any more.”

– © Fairfax NZ News

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