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Natasha hadn’t heard of neonatal cancer until her son was born with it. Here’s what she wants you to know.

Sydney Childrens Hospitals Foundation
Thanks to our brand partner, Sydney Childrens Hospitals Foundation

This time last year, Natasha and Nathan had just been propelled into a nightmare they didn’t even know was possible. 

On November 17, 2020, their second son Ashton was born, but rather than the celebratory occasion most parents get with the birth of a child, they were given the devastating news that their precious baby boy has cancer.     

'I knew he was there but something was telling me that something’s wrong.”

Image: Ashton's Facebook Page.

Penrith mum Natasha was, and still is, a big believer in listening to her instincts, which proved to be right on November 16, the day before Ashton was born. 

At 36 weeks and five days pregnant, Natasha wasn’t too worried about the lack of movement she felt from her unborn son because the placenta was anterior—at the front of the uterus—which can reduce the usual sensations of kicking and moving that most mothers feel when pregnant.

“I was never really concerned if I didn’t feel him move because I knew he was there and I knew the placenta would block a lot of movement,” Natasha says. 

“But for some reason, I was sitting on the lounge and I hadn’t felt him. I knew he was there but something was telling me that something’s wrong.”

Natasha called her husband, Nathan, to let him know she was heading to the hospital. 

“I said, ‘look, it’s probably nothing, but I’m going to the hospital, something feels wrong’,” she says. 

After arriving at the hospital, Natasha was hooked up to monitors and told everything is fine, and as far as the evidence went, it was—the baby had a good heart rate, and everything looked well. 

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But the findings did not reassure Natasha’s gut feeling, and she told staff she wasn’t comfortable going home. 

“I said to them, ‘I know a lot of parents probably say something’s wrong and there’s possibly not, but I’ve got this gut feeling that something isn’t right’. 

Image: Ashton's Facebook Page.

“They decided to keep me overnight for more monitoring, continued to do the heart tracing and everything was all good with him." 

Though after speaking with the obstetrician on duty, the hospital staff were given the go-ahead to get Natasha prepped for an emergency caesarean—at 36 weeks and six days, she was only just shy of full-term. 

As she was wheeled into surgery, she was asked if she’d like to have skin-to-skin time with her baby after Ashton was born, which she jumped at. When her first son, Levi, was born, it was under a general anaesthetic so skin-to-skin wasn’t an option—now in Ashton's case, it still wasn’t to be. 

‘It looked like he'd been in a boxing match with Mike Tyson.’

“When they took him out, they all kind of looked at each other—it was really, really quiet—then they briefly put the curtain down and then they took him away,” Natasha says.   

“I was like, ‘alright, maybe I’m right… I didn’t get my skin-to-skin; they’re all really quiet… something’s going on’. 

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“I saw him get wheeled away, then I got taken to recovery and back to my room, and they came in probably about half an hour later—a social worker came in with the photo.”

Natasha still chokes up at the memory of seeing that first photo of Ashton. 

“The photo was the first time I really saw him,” she says. 

“A couple of hours later they asked if I wanted to go down and meet him—I broke down when I saw him. 

“He was covered in bruises and he had... what do they call it? Little tumour lumps and plaques on his body.”

Ashton was transported by Neonatal Emergency Transport Service (NETS) to the Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead the day after his birth, and it was almost a week before Natasha and Nathan could even hold him for the first time. 

At four days old, doctors confirmed that Ashton had Congenital Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), and at five days old, he started chemotherapy.

‘We wanted to give him every fighting chance we could.’

Despite being told that the odds were stacked against him, Natasha and Nathan weren’t prepared to give up without a fight, no matter how hopeless they felt it seemed. 

Image: Ashton's Facebook Page.

Natasha says, “There was a point where my husband and I said, ‘the odds aren’t good; do we put him through all of that if it’s not going to work?’

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“I was mentally preparing a funeral for a newborn. I never had hope that we were going to bring him home.” 

But again, her gut instinct—or maybe something bigger—came into play, and Natasha knew they would do everything they could.  

“He looked at me, and he really focused on me—it was the first time he’d ever looked at me in the eyes—and he told me, ‘Mum, I’m going to be fine, I’ve got this’. 

“I’ve always gone with my gut instinct, and from that day I snapped out of it and told myself, ‘wake up to yourself, this is your son. You don’t need to plan a funeral.’ 

“And look at him today.”

‘He’s one this week, but he’s spent basically nine months of that in hospital.’

Image: Ashton's Facebook Page.

Despite doctors not expecting him to survive his first treatment, Ashton was able to come home in April after finishing chemo. 

He was in remission and spent a wonderful couple of months at home, giving the family hope that their cancer nightmare was over. 

Unfortunately, after discovering in July what doctors thought to be some blocked hair follicles caused by Ashton’s hair growing back after chemo, a biopsy showed that he had relapsed. 

Ashton was back in hospital just days later to start another round of intensive chemo. 

‘We didn’t know you could be born with cancer.’

One of the biggest struggles for Natasha and Nathan on this journey has been the lack of information and awareness around neonatal cancer, which is why they’re doing everything they can to get the message out so other families experiencing this disease don’t feel so alone. 

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“We want to share our story so people who are going through the same thing feel comfortable coming to us and being like, ‘hey, I saw your son has this; our daughter is going through this’,” Natasha says.  

“Yeah, we’re going through our own stuff, but we can relate to how you feel, and it helps a lot to talk. And it helps even more to talk to someone who’s going through the same journey.”

Natasha and Nathan created Ashton’s Facebook page as a personal blog and have already had several parents reach out who also couldn’t find any information on neonatal cancer. 

Image: Ashton's Facebook Page.

‘No one fights alone.’

Most people would rather not even try to imagine what life is like inside a children’s cancer ward, let alone experience it firsthand, but for Ashton’s parents it has become a place of great support—from both staff and other families—and even inspiration. 

“When you first go in there, it’s daunting—you feel like the walls are just caving in on you and you see all these children going through hell; going through this treatment that is making them so sick,” Natasha says. 

“They’re going through all of this, yet they all still smile. It’s beautiful though.”

At the time of writing, Ashton is being prepared for a bone marrow transplant, set to take place right after his first birthday—which, like his first Christmas, will be spent in hospital. 

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Despite the setback, Natasha says she’s thankful that, despite the odds, Ashton is here to celebrate this milestone—something that wouldn’t have been possible without the advances in medical science and research, which are a direct result of generous donations. 

Christmas is now just around the corner, and with it, the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation’s (SCHF) annual Light Up Christmas Appeal. 

As biggest children’s health charity in Australia, SCHF raises funds for two major children’s hospitals (Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick and The Children's Hospital, Westmead), specialised care services, and cutting-edge paediatric research. 

This helps more than 170,000 kids every year. 

Whether it's used for new equipment, training and education, ground-breaking research, building state-of-the-art facilities or more, SCHF makes sure funds raised go directly to the front line of children's healthcare—from the hospital wards to the treatment rooms, the research labs to the outreach programs.

Natasha says that no one on the ward fights alone, and this applies across the board. 

You might feel that you can’t make a difference, but the SCHF’s ‘Movement of Many’, with 70,000 thinkers, doers, planners and creators show that each individual contribution, when combined, can truly affect change and help give sick kids and their families a brighter Christmas. 

“Thank you can be so general, but something in this instance it's literally life changing,” Natasha says. 

“You're funding new equipment, but you're also funding further studies, which could in the future, hopefully lead to a cure—and that cure could prevent further heartbreak for families.

“It makes families smile knowing that people are out there are so generous and so open-hearted to be able to say, ‘here's my donation. Let's make a difference’.”

By supporting the Light Up Christmas Appeal, you’ll help sick kids receive the very best care – from healing broken arms and treating cancer, to supporting families through their child’s last Christmas.

You can help make a difference to these families by donating to the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation today. Every dollar is another step closer to even more research breakthroughs, state-of-the-art equipment and world-class services and care.

Feature Image: Supplied/Facebook/Ashton's journey with Congenital Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Sydney Childrens Hospitals Foundation
One of the largest and most trusted kids' health charities in the country, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation raises funds to help provide all children with access to the best possible healthcare, whenever and wherever they need it. We’ve been delivering on this promise for the last 35 years, raising millions every year for a collective of two major children’s hospitals, specialised care services and cutting edge paediatric research operating across NSW. A conduit, an enabler and a mechanism for powerful change, we make sure that funds raised go directly to the front line of children’s health care - from the hospitals wards to the treatment rooms, the research labs to the outreach programs.