Pregnancy can be an anxious time, so finding a lump in my breast on the morning of my 20 week scan was far from ideal. Being diagnosed with breast cancer a month later was worse still. I was 35, surely too young to worry about things like that?
My big fear was being told I would have to terminate the pregnancy. I imagined a doctor saying it; clinical, with no compassion. I imagined refusing, or agreeing. I knew, by then, that I was having a girl. I’d been thinking about names. I’d pictured myself reaching out a finger, her hand curling around it.
Then I realised, it was April Fool’s Day. Perhaps it was an elaborate joke and someone was going to put a stop to it in a minute, and we’d all laugh. Imagine! Cancer! No-one put a stop to it. We didn’t laugh. But no-one suggested ending the pregnancy, either. We were in this together, my baby girl and me.
I went home and started to tell the people I love that a meteor had crashed into our cosy little lives. That I wasn’t sure, yet, about the extent of the damage. I held my husband and our two-year-old son a little tighter. I made space for countless appointments and tests. I cried. And I did all the everyday stuff you have to do: cooked dinners, washed clothes, went to the supermarket. Because cancer is a bitch, and it doesn’t care.
When I was 28 weeks pregnant, I was put under general anaesthetic and the tumour was removed. I was told that they’d use less anaesthetic than usual, because of the pregnancy, and I imagined waking mid-surgery. I remembered a programme I’d seen on TV once, about people who are awake and can feel pain during surgical procedures, but can’t alert anyone. I was also told there was a small chance that the surgery would send me into labour, so I was given a couple of pretty uncomfortable steroid injections to boost the baby’s lungs.
Neither of these things happened. I woke up a couple of hours later, minus my right nipple and part of my breast. I vomited; it seemed like a reasonable reaction. My daughter stayed put until I was induced at nearly 35 weeks. And then she arrived, faster than anyone expected, and my heart, which was already pretty full, doubled in size and devoted itself to this new and tiny being.
There’s more to this story. Chemotherapy (still ongoing). A breast cancer gene mutation (meaning more surgery, and probably more vomiting). Two weeks in intensive care for my girl (now thriving). But amongst all the crap, there have been silver linings. Incredible support from loved ones and strangers alike. And happy moments provided by various amazing organisations. I want to shout about two of them from the rooftops, because I’m really keen for anyone else in this shitty situation to find them.
Younger Breast Cancer Network (YBCN) is a closed Facebook group for women who have breast cancer and are under 45. The support I’ve found there is like nothing else. No topic is off limits, from some of the more embarrassing side effects of chemotherapy to issues with friends, partners and family. The steady influx of new members is both a sharp shock and a comfort of sorts; none of us are alone in this.
Mummy’s Star is a charity that supports women who are diagnosed with cancer in pregnancy or in the first year of their child’s life. Who would have thought that was common enough to warrant its own charity? I certainly wouldn’t. Pete, the founder, provides a personal touch that is as comforting as it is surprising. He came to visit me at home and spent a couple of hours just listening to my story.
It’s five months since my diagnosis. I’ve had surgery, given birth and made it more than halfway through my chemo plan. I’ve learned not to take my health, or my family, for granted. I’ve met some incredible people, both virtually and face-to-face. I’ve realised that I’m stronger than I thought I was. And I’m still here. Still tucking my son into bed and rocking my daughter to sleep. Still fighting.
About Laura Pearson
Laura is a copywriter, blogger and unpublished novelist. She lives in Leicestershire with her husband and their two children – Joseph (2) and Elodie (3 months).