I was 36 when I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It was November. The relationship I was in when I found the lump didn’t work out; and by December I was told I would need to have six rounds of chemo followed by a lumpectomy. It was aggressive. The most common kind of breast cancer is hormone responsive, it feeds off oestrogen; my kind of breast cancer, the triple negative, is not as common and can be harder to treat. But the doctors were positive that they had caught it early enough with chemo. I said I wanted to freeze my eggs. The first consultant wouldn’t listen to me, he said he had given his diagnosis and that I had to get on with treatment as soon as possible. But I believed I was going to live through this. I needed to believe that I would have a life on the other side and that it was going to be a life I wanted. We went our separate ways and I was put in the care of a female consultant who agreed to hold treatment for me to have just one round of egg collection. I ended up with five eggs in the freezer.
After the sixth round of chemo, the cancer was shrinking so much they wanted to blast it with one more round before the planned lumpectomy. I asked for a BRCA1 test to identify if my cancer was genetic—it took seven months to find out that it was. This was shit news because it meant it was more likely to come back. I also found out that there was a high chance I could develop ovarian cancer. In just a week, I went from preparing for a lumpectomy to a mastectomy to a double mastectomy. And then doctors said the safest thing to do was to remove my ovaries, too. They wouldn’t do it at the same time, though, because I had lost a lot of weight and it was too much to put my body through. The whole process of cancer treatment took one-and-a-half years. I was proactive about reconstruction and it was amazing because I was looked after by a great team of women who really listened to me. I did my research. I asked to keep my nipples, I wanted it to look as real and as natural as possible.
After all of the treatment was over, I was 38 and single again. So I went to a clinic to check on my fertility. Prior to treatment, my fertility was good for a woman of 36, however, the post-cancer test results said I had a two per cent chance of conceiving. My fertility had aged about 10 years. With my frozen eggs, I was told I had a seven per cent chance of IVF being successful: it wasn’t an outright no, but the doctors wanted me to know it was not a good prognosis. My body had been pumped full of drugs. I needed to step back and rest. So, I went on holiday and then back to work. The doctors continued to ask me if I wanted to have my ovaries out, but I wasn’t ready to let go. My body needed a chance to recover and I didn’t want to feel that I had to give up anything else. But it was, and it still is, a risk.
I started dating again. At 39 I met the right person. One of the things I liked most about him was that he was upfront from the start about wanting a family. I told him about my situation and his immediate response was, “That’s OK, they don’t have to be mine, I’ve already looked into adoption.” Ironically, I’d independently come to the decision that maybe I didn’t want to put my body through another trauma and that adoption could be an option. We spent three or four months getting to know each other, falling in love. Then we decided to just not bother with protection and see what happened.
I do a blood test every three months to test for any indicators of ovarian cancer. My hormones had peaked that day and I was so worried it was cancer again. But then we found out I was pregnant, five months after we’d met. That pregnancy lasted about a month and I miscarried around the time of my 40th birthday. We’d been together five minutes and we managed to get pregnant, so I thought, let’s see if we can do it again. I went for my annual cancer check-up in August and I told them I had been suffering from breathlessness. Everyone was worried so they put me through more rounds of tests, and the long wait for results. First a CT scan, after which I went on a holiday to Greece, as there was nothing I could do while I was waiting. Back for the results, they told me they had found lesions on my spine. I just knew it was going to trigger the trauma again. I was then sent to have an MRI and after another week’s wait, the results showed that in fact there were no lesions on the spine. But, because I had the BRCA1 gene, they wanted to do a full-body PET scan to test for any rogue cancer cells that could have been causing the breathlessness. Another week’s wait to add to the longest five-week period of being scared and stressed that I had an incurable cancer. I was in a bad state. The day of the PET scan results arrived and they told me they had seen something in the left ovary. I went across the road to the early birth unit for an ovarian scan, where the doctor said he would be able to tell me immediately if I had ovarian cancer. I sat with my boyfriend in this calm mental space where I had taught myself to go with the cancer. My mother and sister were outside. The doctor looked at me and told me he had two pieces of news: “You don’t have ovarian cancer and you are four weeks pregnant.” We were all sitting there hugging and this doctor, who must have been in his early thirties, who we didn’t know, had tears in his eyes too.
I guess we must have conceived on holiday in Greece and I remember feeling so peaceful. When we were waiting for our first scan, I thought, “If there’s a heartbeat there then this baby means business.” There was a heartbeat and ever since I have felt completely grounded throughout the pregnancy. Later, the consultant explained how the CT scan could have affected the foetus—it increases the risk of complications, but it doesn’t jump the numbers up high, I wasn’t worried. I rationalised that because I had had the scan during the first month of pregnancy, it would be fine. People do so much worse to their bodies when they don’t know they’re pregnant in the first few weeks. We’ve decided to do hypnobirthing. It fits with my holistic approach when I’m sick. The only thing I’m really firm on when it comes to the birth is that I want to avoid a caesarean and try to have a natural birth. I want to feel the physical part of it all.
At the time of the mastectomy, they offered me the option of leaving one of my breasts so I could breastfeed. But I didn’t want the risk. I knew I was done with it, I just wanted it out. My experience gives me hope that life has pushed through against the odds. I never went to support groups or looked on forums, I didn’t want to get caught up in other people’s fears. All I ever saw was women saying they were left infertile after cancer. Because my cancer wasn’t hormone responsive, it meant I wasn’t put on medication to suppress my oestrogen; I wasn’t forced into menopause. But I’ve taken a risk to hold onto my ovaries. I took the attitude if it happens, it happens. There was no pressure to conceive within a time frame, which was incredibly freeing. And now I can still be a mother, I just came here through a different path.
(Natasha’s baby boy is due on June 11)