I had a baby at 53, then hours later I felt a lump

Jan is determined to beat the odds again

Jan Cullis, 59, was over the moon to give birth to her son when she was 53. Then the very same day, she felt a lump. Here, she tells her story in her own words.

Pressing the phone against my ear, tears spilled down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

‘I’m pregnant?’ I stuttered, between sobs.

‘Yes Jan,’ the nurse from the fertility clinic said. ‘It worked.’

At 52, I’d all but given up hope of having a child. I’d suffered multiple miscarriages and tests had found a problem with my eggs. Each loss was devastating.

While my dreams of motherhood faded, there was always a part of me that held on to a miracle. Then a few years ago, friends encouraged my husband and I to explore the option of using an egg donor.

We found a clinic offering donor eggs from women in South Africa but, because of my age, the chances of us having a successful pregnancy were slim.

Despite the odds, we dared to hope, and after the second insemination, I’d fallen pregnant.

But that wasn’t all.

A few weeks later, I lay in the doctor’s office as the sonographer rubbed cold gel across my belly.

I couldn’t wait to see my baby for myself.

Then, the sonographer dropped a bombshell.

‘Jan…’ she said, ‘you’re having twins.’

Between sobs, I looked at the grainy images on the screen. It was incredible. 

Sadly at 12 weeks one of the twins died, and by 19 weeks, my obstetrician wasn’t sure the second baby, a boy, would survive.

‘You need to be on bed rest until you give birth,’ he told me.

‘But I can’t,’ I said. ‘I have to visit my mum.’

My mum, Lesly, 77, had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and after a long fight, the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do.

‘I’m sorry Jan, but you have to choose between your mum and your baby,’ he said.

Holding my miracle baby in hospital (Credit: Supplied/Jan Cullis/that’s life!)

I felt the walls closing in on me

Orlando grew into a healthy boy (Credit: Supplied/Jan Cullis/that’s life!)

It broke my heart knowing I couldn’t see Mum when she needed me most.

But when I called to tell her what the doctor had said, she was quick to reassure me.

‘Don’t you dare do anything to put that baby at risk,’ she told me calmly. ‘I’ll be fine.’ It was typical Mum.

She’d never once doubted my dream to become a mother, even when the odds were stacked against us.

I spent the next three months laid up in bed, getting to know the little life growing inside of me.

But by 34 weeks, something didn’t feel right. At the hospital, an ultrasound showed my baby was in distress, and before
I knew it, I was being wheeled into theatre.

The surgeons got to work, and I just had time to kiss my baby’s forehead before he was whisked off to intensive care.

Later that day, once I’d begun to recover, I was desperate to know how my boy was doing.

A nurse explained he was having trouble breathing and they were fighting to keep him stable.

‘Has your milk come through yet?’ she asked. I put my hand against my right breast to check.

But then, I felt something and froze.

‘Oh God,’ I said, looking up at her. ‘I can feel a lump.’

‘It’s probably a blocked milk duct,’ she said.

But I shook my head.

‘It’s a lump,’ I said. ‘It’s cancer.’

I felt the walls closing in on me. How on Earth could this be happening?

I’m so proud of my son (Credit: Supplied/Jan Cullis/that’s life!)

I’d already made the decision not to tell anyone in my family.

An ultrasound and several needle biopsies followed, and it was just as I’d feared. There was a tumour the size of a pea.

I couldn’t get my head around it. Less than 24 hours earlier, I’d given birth to my miracle boy. Now I might not live to see him grow up.

With my tiny bub still critical, all I could do was focus on him as he was transferred to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.

When I joined him there later that day, the nurse asked if I’d held him yet.

I shook my head.

‘Let’s fix that,’ she said.

Carefully, she placed him in my arms and as I held him close, I began to weep. He’d made it.

‘I am never leaving you,’ I promised.

I decided to name him Orlando, and over the next week, he grew stronger.

Then, when he was 10 days old, I went into surgery to have the lump removed.

I’d already made the decision not to tell anyone in my family. Mum’s cancer was taking its toll and I didn’t want to burden her.

Tests showed my lump was cancerous, but thankfully it hadn’t spread.

Orlando still had some respiratory problems to overcome but after 13 days, I was able to take him home.

Over the next year, I had radiotherapy to make sure the cancer didn’t spread and Orlando grew into a happy, healthy baby.

Mum doted on him and we spent a wonderful Christmas together.

But Mum’s health deteriorated, and soon after Orlando turned two, she passed away. Sadly my marriage broke down too.

Thankfully, my scans remained clear, and after five years, I celebrated being cancer free.

But then one day, I fell and hurt my back.

My boy wanted his head shaved too (Credit: Supplied/Jan Cullis/that’s life!)
My boy and me (Credit: Supplied/Jan Cullis/that’s life!)

I brushed it off but the pain persisted.

‘Let’s not panic yet,’ the doctor said, as she booked me in for a scan.

But I had a nagging feeling it was more than just the fall, and in January 2019, the tests showed I was right.

The cancer had returned – only this time, it was in my bones and liver, and there was no cure.

‘How long will I survive without treatment?’ I asked the oncologist.

‘A year,’ she said. I bit back tears.

‘That’s not an option,’ I replied. ‘I have a child who needs me.’

My little man was only five.

The doctor talked me through treatment plans but by then, I’d stopped listening.

That afternoon, I picked up Orlando from daycare and did my best to act normal.

But the next evening as he sat in the bath, he turned to me and said, ‘Mumma, is there something you want to tell me?’

‘What do you mean, darling?’ I replied.

‘You just don’t seem right,’ he said, squeezing my hand. My heart broke.

I wanted to be honest with Orlando but I was scared of overwhelming him.

So, I told him I needed treatment to help my sore back.

‘But Mummy’s going to be okay,’ I said.

While I could be brave for Orlando, inside I was terrified.

I read stories of other cancer survivors to give myself hope, and the black cloud hanging over me began to shift.

I’ve beaten this once, I can do it again, I told myself. I began chemo to shrink the tumours, and soon after, my hair started to fall out.

I didn’t want to scare Orlando so I took him along to the hairdresser when I got my head shaved.

Afterwards, he tugged on my hand.

‘Mummy, can she do mine too?’ he asked.

‘Are you sure?’ I replied. He had lovely long hair.

‘Yes Mummy, I want mine to look like yours,’ he said.

‘Oh sweetheart,’ I said, agreeing he could.

As we walked out of  the hairdresser’s with his hand in mine, I felt so proud of my boy.

Now, I’m still having chemo. I can’t work, so I’ve begun crowdfunding to help with my bills and treatment costs.

People’s kindness has blown me away, while Orlando’s love keeps me fighting every day.

He’s six now, and every time I look at my boy, I’m reminded that miracles do happen. He is my proof.

I beat the odds to give birth at 53 and now, I’ll beat them again.

To support Jan and Orlando visit her fundraising page

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