Beat the odds, fill the void.

After beating cancer as a teenager, Becca travelled the world before she and her husband had a baby... in very dramatic circumstances. Becca lives in the Shoalhaven region of Australia and now is expecting her second child.

I was born in Ontario, Canada, the oldest of three sisters. We have always been a very close family and I’d consider my sisters my best friends. I treated my youngest sister like my own child at times and I used to get up with my mum at night to help with the crying baby. I can only imagine how thrilled my mum would have been! Everyone said I was a lot older than my years right from the word go.

My parents were both doctors and career as well as family focused. Although I found it hard at first when they separated when I was nine, they were much happier people afterwards. We loved the outdoors and we were always doing things outside. I was a good skier and when I was 15 I was accepted to go to the National Ski Academy, a secondary school for skiers which allowed them to pursue their sport without losing their academics. I was really looking forward to it especially because we would spend the first month in Switzerland skiing and training for the season.

To get into the ski school I had to have a doctors physical. When the doctor felt my neck she was really surprised to find a lump. She sent me for tests, but because no-one thought it was going to be serious and because I was focused on working and earning money over the summer, the test dates kept getting pushed back.

Cancer

The day I finally had the ultrasound they discovered the lump was a type of tumor in my thyroid. Thyroid tumors are rare at 15 years old.  Within a week I was on the operating table. The surgeon only took out half of my thyroid because it was believed it was benign, but after the pathology showed it was malignant I was back the next week having the other half taken out.

The question then was, ‘what would happen next?’ I wanted to go to continue my goal of attending the Ski Academy but the doctors were unsure if a trip to Switzerland in a few weeks was possible. Fortunately my mom, who knows me well said, “She's going. This is what’s keeping her going. If she doesn't do it, it could be an even harder recovery.”

I did go – and had a wonderful time! I did nearly everything that everyone else did and found I made wonderful new friends who were very supportive. I came back healthy and happy! A number of months later I had radiation treatment and a while after that was cleared of cancer. I now need thyroid replacement medication, but I have never had any problems since!

Learning that at the age of 15 I had cancer was a very weird and very surreal experience, but having two doctors as parents I had always heard of a lot of worst case scenarios, so I just thought, “well, I'm lucky that it is what it is.” If I hadn’t had a goal to focus on afterwards, maybe it would have been different.

Finding new roads

Skiing went well until I had a back injury. I quit racing and went into downhill ski coaching which I did throughout secondary school and my undergraduate degree in biology. I just loved coaching and teaching others. I remember sitting in my biology classes at Uni and paying more attention to how the professor was teaching than what he was teaching. I knew from that point on that I had to return to school after I finished my undergrad to get a teaching degree. I did and loved it so much that I continued on and did my Masters in Education. 

While I was studying a friend put me onto a job with a company called Backroads. I was hired at the young age of 21 to lead active travel trips, originally in the Rockies while I was still at uni, but then later all over the world. I led trips in France, Turkey, and through Thailand, Vietnam, Bali, Laos and Cambodia. I loved it!

I met my husband Mark through a friend when I was 25. He was Australian, working in Canada as a cave guide and traveling in South America, so we had similar lives. We just got along right off the bat and started hanging out. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together but I didn’t think it would turn into a serious relationship. “He's an Australian,” I thought. “A ‘Dodgy Aussie’.”

Then one day he called me and said, “Look, I don't really want to see anyone else. I want us just to see each other.” Time passed, I moved to Australia and we got engaged. By this time I had grown quite a bit in my job and the company was saying things like, “Where do you want to go?” My two dreams were to go to South Africa and Bhutan and it was definitely on the cards. 

Mark and I were married in 2007 and we both knew we wanted to have children, but we weren’t even trying when I fell pregnant at the end of 2007.

Even though I never felt very happy in the pregnancy, everything went well at the beginning, except that a placental function test at 12 weeks came back a bit wonky. The doctors said, “Everything is probably fine. We don't know too much about this test, but we'll monitor the baby's growth.”

What's going on?

Around 23 weeks pregnant I went back to Canada for a while to see family and for work and people started saying that I didn’t look well. I was tired and swollen and put it down to being pregnant and traveling. Finally, when I got a cold at 27 weeks I went to the doctor at a clinic to make sure everything was ok. She noticed I had high blood pressure and protein in my urine and told me to come back in two days.

The next night I felt huge discomfort below my ribs. I was in so much pain that I called my mom back in Ontario to check if she thought I should go to emergency. She said yes, and then said, “But get them to test your liver. There's this rare condition called HELLP syndrome. It would be worth getting it checked out.”

I went in and said to the emergency nurses, feeling really cheeky, “My mum is a doctor and she’s said to get tested for HELLP syndrome. Could you just test my liver?” They did blood tests, but they didn't test my liver and they sent me home. Two days later the pain happened again and I felt terrible, so my friend drove me in to emergency again. I saw another doctor “well, we’ll look at the more likely scenarios,” so again, didn't test my liver.

By this stage it had been five days that they knew I had very high blood pressure and protein in my urine so the next day I went back to the first doctor at the clinic. Fortunately she knew she didn’t know what to do and called the obstetrician in the nearest city, Calgary. The obstetrician had said that I needed go straight to  the hospital in Calgary and she’d be expecting me. So my poor friend, who we now lovingly call ‘Uncle Donny’ drove me the two-hour drive to Calgary. As they ushered me into the labour and delivery ward, I thought, “I'm not ready for this I’m not even 28 weeks pregnant!”

The Doctors and nurses were now taking me seriously. They did tests and when they came back at one point to take a second blood test, my friend Donny saw 'STAT' written on the vial, which means ‘get it done right away’. He said to me, “I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere today.”

Seriously ill

When they finally did my liver function test, it was completely out of whack. Their goal was to keep me in hospital for about four weeks, and try to get me to 32 weeks gestation. This would allow the baby to get bigger and hopefully they could control my blood pressure and pain. They would be giving me steroid injections to help develop the baby's lungs. With steroids you get a ‘grace’ period where you start to feel better. So it looked like I was improving, but my liver function was still going down. I was on the phone to Mark saying, “Don’t come. I’ll be fine. I’m feeling better!”

But my mom knew differently. She cancelled a week-long hike with my sister, got on a plane to Calgary and rang Mark to say, “Get on the first flight you can.” He did just that.

Things went downhill so quickly after the steroids wore off that on the day Mark flew, he called me from the airport. I told him that I was alright and not to worry, but two hours later I couldn’t even speak.

The doctors came in and said “Your liver is going. If the baby is not born now, neither one of you is going to make it,” and they induced me while Mark was still in the air. With HELLP syndrome the only treatment is to deliver the baby and get the placenta out.

Mark made it to Canada a few hours before Madeline’s birth which went quite smoothly.  Madeline was born at exactly 28 weeks gestation (12 weeks early) and weighed 940 grams or 2.1 pounds. She was very tiny, but she was all there and so alert. She was born with her eyes open and even tried to cry. The neo-natal intensive care team took over straight away and were so focused on Maddie that they didn’t even tell me if I’d had a boy or a girl. My mum and Mark were able to watch as they prepped her to go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and took some photos for me to see. They showed her to me briefly, but I knew they had to do their job. As much as I missed not seeing her or holding her, I knew that she needed that care so whatever they needed to do was fine by me.

More complications

Delivering seemed to solve the HELLP syndrome. But the next morning I woke up in the postpartum ward and I had pains below my ribs again.

The doctors seemed to think that the pain would go away, and of course, the main concern was Maddie, and how she was doing. But as that day progressed, I was in more and more pain and kept asking for help. I'm sure the nurses thought I was addicted to pain medication.

The night nurse wouldn't give me anything so she called her superior who would only give me a drip bag, which is the slowest way to get pain relief. All the while my blood pressure was skyrocketing. Finally, one of the resident doctors got wind of all this and came over and got quite angry at the nurse. I was so happy that someone had finally listened to me as I honestly felt like I wasn’t going to come out of it this time. I remember asking the nurses to call my husband Mark and Mom so they could be with me, unfortunately they were unreachable. I remember telling the nurses to let them know I loved them.

The resident brought me back over to the high risk room in the labour ward and I had a doctor by my side that whole night. The pain was from my liver swelling. It was pushing up on my lungs so I could hardly blow into the breath test. It got to a point where they couldn't control my pain – I was literally shaking the bed rails screaming - and they called an anesthesiologist. He gave me a drug that is basically a horse tranquilizer and it just knocked me out. I felt like I was at a Pink Floyd concert with all these lights around me, just thinking, “No pain, no pain. Don't give me any more of that drug, I have no more pain.”

The next morning I felt ok, but my liver had failed and I was now turning yellow. I was even seeing a what looked like the pretty yellow light you see when the sun is setting. I said to my mum, “What time is it? The sun is setting. Everything is so beautiful.” She looked at me and knew I was in trouble as when your eyes are yellow it’s not a good sign.

They did a scan of my liver, and found two major clots, so they transferred me to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) because I needed 24 hour monitoring and a lot of very difficult care. It got so serious that a liver specialist came in and interviewed me to see if I was a candidate for a liver transplant.

Unfortunately, as you lose your liver function you can lose your mind. He was asking me questions like, “What day is it? What's your name?” and I got them all right, but at the same time I had decided that he was a bad man and he wanted to separate me from all my family! There was a transplant liver waiting for me a short flight away in Edmonton. Thankfully I never needed it as I started to improve.

As things got better I asked them what I could do to help. They said, “Well, you can drink water and move your legs as much as you can.” So that's what I did. I think if you're going through something hard, you don’t sit and feel sorry for yourself, you just focus on what you can do. There's always something you can do even if it's drinking water and moving your legs!

The hospital took a picture of Maddie in NICU to put up by my bed in ICU. And the nurses would laugh because they had to bring a breast pump into the ICU for me to pump milk while still being attached to every machine possible! Altogether, I was in hospital for two and a half weeks and by eight weeks, I had made a full medical recovery.

It's not over yet

Maddie was in hospital for 12 weeks. She had her battles and ups and downs – as you would expect with any baby born at 28 weeks, but a doctor took us aside one day and said, “Look, I can't tell you how she's going to do, but I think she's going to come through this. It may not look like it to you, but she probably will.” She had trouble breathing and some issues with her heart and feeding, but she managed to avoided all surgeries and never had a blood transfusion which is pretty amazing for a 28 week baby who weighed only 940 grams.

We had to rent an apartment in Calgary while Maddie was in the hospital and I went to see her every day from about 8am, getting home at 6 or 7pm. She would sleep and I would pump milk and we were able to feed her and change her. It seemed almost normal, but I'd see new parents walking out of the hospital with their newborns in their capsules and I'd think, “I can't wait until that's me.” That was my goal. If you don’t have a goal it's easy to get down about what you're going through.

I would get upset whenever I'd leave Maddie at the end of the day and start to cry. It was just against every grain in a new mothers body to leave their baby alone. Mark was really good because he'd say, “She doesn't know any different, for Maddie this is normal” That seemed to help me rationalize things and made me feel a lot better.

After Maddie was discharged (just a few days before her expected due date) we had to wait another four months at my mom's place in Ontario before we had the green light to make the long-haul flight back to Australia. In January 09, we flew back and Mark was finally able to return to work after 8 months away!

Life continues

Maddie is now over 2 years old and a happy healthy little girl. We are also now expecting our second child, which was not an easy decision. A year or so ago we went to the doctors to have multiple tests done to see if there were reasons why I had severe HELLP syndrome. The tests showed nothing, so it's completely unexplained. In some ways that’s good because there’s no reason why I had it, but in some ways it’s bad, because they don't know how to avoid it.

They think I might have a 25 per cent chance of getting it again, but it would likely be later, and not as severe. Last time it was the worst case scenario. I was amongst the 11 people in the world who have needed a liver transplant because of it. I think the odds this time are in my favour. So far everything has been really good. I didn't have that wonky blood test at 12 weeks that I had with Maddie’s pregnancy, and I really enjoy being pregnant this time, which to me means a lot. Both Mark and I also realized that it we didn’t try and have a second child we would always wonder “what if...?”

It’s funny. I've had a really healthy life but talking about myself here, I’ve talked about my parents' divorce, and cancer and all these health issues. It sounds like all these difficult things. I actually see them as positive things. Really, they were short experiences. The cancer went on for less than a year. Maddie was in hospital for three months. Life goes back to normal. I'm 32 years old, and those are really small time frames in the big picture. They do end up being the things you talk about because they do have an impact and effect who you are I suppose.

Assessing the impact

So yes, these experiences have impacted my life. They change how you see things and make you want to improve where you see a void. I ended up doing a Masters of Education focusing on educating students with chronic illness because of my brief stint with cancer. I missed some school over that year and it made me realize that there is a whole population of students who fall through the cracks. They don't fall under 'special education' but they have needs beyond regular students. I figured studying it and in the future working on such things would be wonderful.

I also have started a 'NurtureGroup' for premature and unwell babies and their families with Cathy a good friend of mine. As much as friends and family can support you, they don't understand completely. I met Cathy who had a very different experience, but similar in lots of ways and it was a great support for us both. If we hadn't found each other it would have been really hard. You do go through those feelings and questions like “why couldn't I carry her?” and you do struggle with it. So when you have someone else who also has those questions, it's just good to get them out. I think that sometimes you have to ask yourself those questions in order to get past them.

I will let myself feel sorry for myself for a bit if I have to, but then I get over it and pick myself up and look at the experience and see how I can make it a better one for someone else who is going through it. 

 

Links

NurtureGroup is with the Miracle Babies Foundation: Supporting premature and sick newborns, their families and the hospitals that care for them  www.miraclebabies.org.au

Backroads: The Worlds Largest Active Travel Company   www.backroads.com

National Ski Academy www.nsa.on.ca