Journalist, Elle Halliwell discovered she was expecting her first child two days after being diagnosed with leukaemia. In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, she shares her bittersweet experience.
Elle Halliwell opens up about her battle
Pregnancy; it’s supposed to be one of the most joyous periods in a woman’s life. Sure, you’re dealing with bouts of inescapable nausea, fatigue and the general anxieties of carrying another human, but for the majority of women who are ready to start a family, it’s pretty incredible.
When your baby news coincides with a cancer diagnosis, however, it can be one of the most challenging things you can ever face.
That’s the situation I found myself in on May 1.
I was floating in a haze of Xanax and shock when the two little blue lines appeared on the pregnancy stick, confirming I was expecting my first child. I’d love to say I jumped for joy, but my exclamation instead was of the four-letter kind. Because 48 hours before this news, I had been diagnosed with leukaemia.
A photo posted by Elle Halliwell (@ellehalliwell) on
The diagnosis came as a huge blow, as I had no symptoms. My husband Nick and I were planning to try for a baby later in the year, so I visited my GP to get blood tests and check my folate and vitamin D levels.
Those levels came back fine, but my blood platelets were unusually high. Two weeks later another test showed even higher levels, so I was referred to an expert haematologist from The Chris Obrien Lifehouse. After further tests, he offered the devastating news: I had Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia, a disease, which before 2001 had a five year survival rate of less than one in three and was considered one of the more devastating forms of blood cancer with an eight-year survival rate of less than 15 per cent. It also more commonly affected men with a median age of 60, so I was truly a special case, considering I lived a healthy lifestyle, was 30 and female, and had none of the risk factors.
My husband and I were still telling family and close friends of my health challenge when I discovered I was four weeks pregnant. Our first thought was, can we keep the baby? Our specialist strongly advised us not to, as without treatment my slow-growing cancer could possibly turn aggressive and kill me before my pregnancy reached full term. He recommended I abort, freeze some eggs and immediately begin a relatively new form of oral chemotherapy called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs, which I would have to take for at least five years — until I was 35. Only then could I consider stopping treatment and try to conceive.
My husband, who was still in shock over our new situation, took charge, and after days of intense research discovered a very small number of women around the world with CML had successfully delivered healthy children via alternative treatments.
So we travelled to South Australia to meet with CML world expert professor Timothy Hughes, who gave us some confidence that, due to the early detection there was a strong chance I could manage the cancer until I gave birth and start on a more effective treatment.
If you walked past me in the street, or took a peek at myInstagram account, you wouldn’t believe I had an incurable disease.
I’m not bruised, bald or lying in a hospital bed, which is an image many conjure up when they think of children and adults with leukaemia. One of the biggest challenges right now is reconciling the fact that I feel healthy, but am far from it.
There are days when I forget I’m sick. I go to work, grab coffee with friends and cook dinner with my husband.
It’s when I pause and think of the little person growing inside me, and my responsibility to care for him that I feel sick with worry. But despite the weekly Interferon injections I have to take (which can cause food aversion, fatigue and flu-like symptoms), he’s growing big and strong — our 20 week ultrasound this month confirmed this.
CML, which accounts for just 0.03 per cent of cancers diagnosed, now has a very different survival outlook thanks to research grants which led to the discovery of drugs which have changed CML from a death sentence to an illness that can for many people be managed for many years.
Most days I have a smile on my face. I’ve got a lot to live for and feel blessed to live in a country where my medication is affordable and the quality of care and medical support is very high. My life will never be the same, but I’m looking forward to what is in store. And thanks to the support of my family, friends and the generous public donations to organisations such as the Cancer Council and Leukaemia Foundation, I have a very, very good chance of not only celebrating my son’s first Christmas this year, but also being there for many more of his milestones.