Mum’s heartache: ‘I found out I was pregnant while I had cancer’

It's every mothers worst nightmare.

To mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Karly shares her story of diagnosis and determination.

Here, Karly, 36, tells the story in her own words.

With each flutter I felt in my belly, I tried not to get too excited. What if I lose you too? I wondered, stroking my bump.

On our IVF journey, my husband, Scott, then 31, and I had already lost two precious babies. It wasn’t until our 20-week scan that we dared to dream. Sucking its tiny thumb, our bub wiggled around on the screen. ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ I asked.

Holding my hand, Scott, my rock, had a huge smile on his face. But the sonographer looked concerned. ‘This ovary is a bit big,’ she said, pointing at the grainy image. ‘I’m just going to ask the doctor to come in and have a look.’ I wasn’t worried.

During IVF, my ovaries had become hyperstimulated and were larger than normal. ‘Let’s have a chat in my office,’ the doctor said afterwards. ‘What are we having first?’ I asked, too excited to wait. ‘It’s a boy,’ he smiled.  ‘And he’s perfect.’ But he also had some scary news.

‘I think there’s a mass growing in your right ovary – it looks suspicious, but it could be nothing. We just need to monitor it,’ he said. ‘What if it’s cancer?’ I asked Scott as we left. ‘It’s not, don’t be silly,’ he replied. ‘You’re right,’ I agreed, imagining our baby boy. A gift, I couldn’t wait for the next chapter of our lives.

At work the next morning, my obstetrician rang.‘Karly, I’ve got you an appointment with an oncologist this afternoon – can you come?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ I stammered. It’s probably nothing, I kept telling myself. But when surgery was proposed to remove an entire ovary the next morning, doubts crept in. ‘I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but now is the best time,’ the oncologist explained.

Terrifyingly, premature labour was a risk. But with my bub only the size of a banana, there was still enough room for them to operate safely. ‘We’ll do everything we can to protect him, but I need to get that growth out,’ he told me.

Booked in for theatre, on the way home, my baby did cartwheels inside me.What if I lose you? I worried.  Waiting to go into theatre the next day, I broke down. ‘Please don’t let me go into labour, it’s too soon,’ I pleaded. ‘Just let the baby survive,’ I repeated again and again, holding my stomach.

As I came to afterwards, I heard a nurse’s voice. ‘There’s a heartbeat,’ she assured me. My little fighter was fine. And my prognosis looked good, too. The oncologist thought it was a benign mature teratoma. ‘Once they’re removed, that’s usually it,’ the oncologist said. But a week later, the results came back.The mass was a malignant immature teratoma. I have ovarian cancer, I realised.

Now, Scott and I were faced with a choice. Abort our much-wanted bub and start chemo straight away, or wait as long as we could to give our unborn child a chance. It was a mum’s worst nightmare. ‘We have to save this baby,’ I decided. I’d carry my son for as long as possible, then I’d start treatment.

Me, two months after chemotherapy
(Credit: Supplied)

The oncologist was sure he’d removed all the cancer, but I’d have to be watched very carefully. As my tummy grew, I had regular blood tests to check if my tumour markers were elevated. Chest X-rays gauged if the cancer had spread to my lungs.Please just let me get to 30 weeks, I prayed. Each day I was able to carry my baby gave him a better chance.

Amazingly, just a month short of my due date, I delivered our son, who we called Jack, via C-section. ‘Hi baby, I’m your mummy,’ I whispered as he was placed on my chest. Given a moment to cuddle, Jack’s daddy went with him to intensive care, while my fallopian tube was removed.

treatment week 1
Me with Scott and baby Jack

Wanting to breastfeed for as long as possible, I started chemo six weeks later. For a brutal two-and-a-half months, even cradling Jack left me exhausted. I lost my hair and, as it grew back, my boy began sprouting his own wispy tresses. At one stage, he had longer locks than me!

But after six months, I was officially in remission. Now we had the all clear, Scott and I wanted to give Jack a sibling. But we only had one embryo left. Chemo had ravaged my egg count, so making any more would be a mean feat.

Me and Jack before Cooper was born
Me and Jack before Cooper was born (Credit: Supplied)

Incredibly, we were blessed with our youngest son, Cooper, three-and-a-half years later. Now 10 months, he’s a determined little guy who’s into everything. A total chatterbox, his big brother, Jack, four, loves to sing and dance. ‘You’re our little miracle,’ I tell him, covering him with kisses.

While we haven’t explained my cancer to Jack, he knows he and Cooper are IVF babies. ‘When we were in the freezer…’ he’ll say cutely. My pregnancy meant my cancer was detected early, and I’ll be forever grateful. But I urge you to get to know your body and get a check-up if anything changes. I had a little lifesaver, but we need to learn to be our own.

My precious babies, Cooper and Jack
(Credit: Supplied)

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