An article on cancer and antenatal life

4 Dec

I’ve written this for the next edition of the Dimbleby Cancer Care (DCC) trust’s newsletter. The DCC provided me with essential support while I received chemotherapy for cancer in 2011, and I’ve kept in touch with them since. The theme is about how cancer still plays a role in my life, even well into remission and healthy, now that I’m having baby. I still cannot pin healthcare professionals down on precisely why having had cancer plays a role in my antenatal care, but it seems that being ‘different’ healthwise automatically puts a reg flag on your record.

Have a read.


As I write, I’m hemmed in on all sides by old shelving, piles of CDs and books, bedding, and photo frames. The living room looks as if a jumbo jet exploded and dropped all its cargo into my living room. I’m redecorating my tiny spare bedroom because I’m having a baby – my first. Pregnancy is harder work than having chemotherapy was. I heard Jennifer Saunders narrating her new book on Radio 4 last week. She says that chemotherapy was easy, because she just did as she was told – the least stressful and easiest part of her adult life. I know exactly what she means. There’s such a thing as chemo nostalgia. Obviously, I detested giving myself a Neulasta injection 24 hours after each chemotherapy session, and the following days when my bone marrow was on fire and shattering into dust inside me. But I found that essentially, society exempted me from responsibility, however minor, for six months. Having just come out of a stressful job, it was almost a welcome break from myself. Everyone around me understood everything, and I could just be. I’m sure because of this, I recovered quickly and fully. What other time in one’s life can they expect to be given such a free pass?

Now, as a pregnant woman, shades of this reappear: I’m supposed to be tired and sleepy a lot, and as I’m told, “give in to it”. And perhaps my cancer training makes me a little too good at that. My mum spent most of a week blitzing said spare room, damp proofing, stripping wallpaper, painting, sanding, cleaning and hauling things in and out, so that my boyfriend and I can have a place that in time we’ll call our child’s bedroom. My contribution was to accompany my mum to the local hardware store to buy paint, supply regular cups of tea, and a really soggy toad in the hole with rock-hard steamed carrots. Both mum and boyfriend were complimentary about the car crash dinner anyway – something about ‘baby brain’ was my mum’s pop science explanation.

My time as a cancer patient was excellent training for my life now. It is in use every day. Before cancer, I never had time for breakfast. Lunch was a soggy Pret sandwich eaten while feverishly typing emails at around 3pm, and dinner was whatever was in the cupboards fried up together and wolfed down over Newsnight. I cannot do that now. While I was having chemo I began to have breakfasts, and now I feel sick if I don’t have it. After chemo, I became a freelancer working from home, which meant that I began to make my own lunches and stop for an hour to eat properly. The lifestyle change meant that I could luxuriate a little over making a proper dinner.

All told, I’m a lot healthier because of cancer. And now that I’m pregnant, and bloody hungry all the time, this training comes into its own. I’m doing the best by my post-cancer body – even when I do long shifts as a contractor now, I prepare plenty of healthy food and snacks to come with me, so I can eat every couple of hours – and I’m answering the call of my unborn baby for nutrients. I do get tired, and my time in chemo taught me to listen to my body telling me when to stop, or when more sleep is needed. So I can hear the messages, and act accordingly. As I learned how to articulate to those around me how I was feeling physically (I thought that keeping my partner in the loop was a logical way of tracking any potential infection or problems while having chemo, so that he could help me keep note for when I saw my oncologist or my Macmillan nurse), I do this much more now that I’m pregnant. That way those around me know that I’m not bored of their conversation – I just need to take a power nap. None of those good habits would have occurred to me before chemo. I have wondered if my inability to hear my body before that experience contributed to getting cancer, though the question of nature versus nurture (of lack of it) as a determinant of cancer is one best left to scientists.

This Christmas I will mark two years since I finished my ABVD, six cycles, for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, stage three, and I’ll be at the latter stage of my second pregnancy trimester. And cancer, while not in my body, stays with me in both positive and negative ways. I have discovered that midwives fret about you if you’ve had a serious illness; my cancer experience could dictate which type of delivery I can endure. I’m thinking about a home birth – I live moments from my hospital, and as my obstetrician said, “you could crawl in yourself if you got into trouble”. They have said that supporting this hangs on my oncologist’s blessing and normal test results. I have since received that, but my oncologist wants me to see the obstetrician in my last trimester because of the low risk that the Doxorubicin may have weakened my heart, which may put me in danger at labour. Other than that, he downgraded me from reviews three times a year to twice a year, and is happy with my health, as he is with supporting a home birth – if the obstetrician sees no problems from my heart. My mum suggested a caesarian. She says: “it’s easy, like taking shopping out of a bag”. So even though I’m well enough to conceive two years after chemo and in my mid-30s, that cancer history is informing the way clinicians assess my pregnancy.

On the upside, seeing an obstetrician is a good thing. You want as many experts as you can get, and thank Christ for the NHS’s! But the otherwise clean bill of health my oncologist has served up means that I won’t see him until after I’ve had the baby. Again, chemo nostalgia: I really rather like him, and will miss the opportunity to catch up with him for the next 8 months. In the meantime, the 13 years of flat-sharing flotsam and jetsam I’m hemmed into my living room by will be rationalised to make way for the ephemera of a small person. And my cancer history may yet tell whether I’ll be able to give birth to the baby in this very room or three minutes down the road.


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