To be pregnant and have cancer: “I can’t have a glass of wine, but I can have chemotherapy.”

pregnant with cancer

My name is Jules. I am 33 years old, a lawyer, and currently work in an executive infrastructure management role. I am also a spouse to an Australian Army pilot. And to make all the more complicated, I am pregnant, and now have breast cancer.

The past two years, I have been living in Darwin. My husband was posted there to command a Squadron of Tiger Helicopters. I managed to get an amazing job opportunity that I had been working for 15 years to get to.

I loved that job and it was not lost on me that it was an amazing opportunity for someone so young. So much so that when my husband was posted to Canberra in December 2017, we decided to take the posting ‘unaccompanied’. That is Defence jargon for the spouse deciding to stay in one location while the military member moves to another. In our case, it was Darwin for me and Canberra for Joel. We are a seasoned military couple so were happy with our decision.

wedding pic
Here’s me in 2015 at my wedding: pretty darn lucky, right??? Image: Supplied.

Then in late December 2017, I found out that I was pregnant with our first child. We were very excited, albeit it changed our plans slightly and I intended to move to Canberra by June 2018. Shortly afterward, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer.

When I was 14 weeks pregnant, we got the news from our GP that I have breast cancer. We later found out it was triple negative - a particularly aggressive type - that has metastasised to my liver, bones and possibly my lungs.

I am now 32 weeks pregnant, and I am slowly transitioning into a solid impersonation of Humpty Dumpty! The bald head is what makes it really special.

I have moved to Canberra to be with my family and have just had my fifth round of chemo. I am starting to learn that my experience is in some ways very common and relatable (pregnancy is super weird!) and in others, fairly unique. In a matter of weeks, I have had to transform from being a very successful, independent, high-flyer to someone that is dealing with cancer, pregnancy, and end-of-life planning, along with moving house and states and all the other normal challenges Defence spouses deal with.

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pregnant with cancer
"I am slowly transitioning into a solid impersonation of Humpty Dumpty!" Image: Supplied.

My prognosis is not great and being pregnant that has many emotional, physical and financial challenges. With the prospect of raising a child, the oncologist gave us a good understanding of my likelihood of surviving the next two years. In some ways, it was an act of mercy because we can plan. But knowing that my kid will never have a memory of me is really hard.

I certainly go through emotions of feeling selfish and cruel to my family. I feel like I am the perpetually exploding bomb that is a constant never-ending source for sadness amongst the people I love the most. I can't make them happy like I used to, and I miss just being a normal human in a room. My mother is on a similar but very different journey. We can talk about some things but then I can get really overwhelmed by a thought of losing my mum, being a new mum without my mum, or how lucky I was to have her as a mum and knowing that I can't give that to my future kid...

The bomb just keeps exploding with guilt, shame, and fear.

And then, for the most part, I have witnessed the most extraordinary acts of kindness and humanity. Strangers offering cooked meals, new mums offering breast milk, my work gave me time off without even asking, healthcare workers going over and above to look out for me. My private obstetrician waived his free, a $6000 gift that we are very, very grateful for. I have a McGrath Foundation Breast Care nurse (Kerryn) who is a magical unicorn that is so special I am actually worried she may not be real! My girlfriends keep me laughing and never fail to tell me to ‘get my shit together’. My husband is the most incredible partner in life and still keeps me laughing throughout some truly crazy moments. He (and our Dalmatian Cali) never fail to find the humour in this temporarily insane situation. Turns out, fart jokes combat cancer sads?!? Who knew??

There is also a whole community of young women with breast cancer and I had the privilege of meeting them last week at a Breast Cancer National Association (BCNA) Think Tank. Young women face challenges like work, superannuation, fertility, relationships and body image concerns that are so different to our mothers and sisters over 50 years old.

850 women under the age of 50 are diagnosed with Breast Cancer every year in Australia. These chicks, turns out, are amazing! So much fun and so resilient. It was a real privilege to have met them!

Like many of them, I miss being able to have a boozy meal with my girls and just being a normal 30 something. I think that has been the hardest thing to get my head around: I sit there with nurses fully gowned up with protective gear and face masks to administer these super intense drugs, and meanwhile I am sitting there SUPER pregnant, watching it go into my veins thinking, 'How bad could a glass of wine or food that is not organic really be?'

I have since learnt the different pathways that chemo and wine take and how they can affect the baby, but its such an insane situation, on the face of it!

So life changes dramatically when you get pregnant! Boozy lunches with the girls are a little less frequent. But it's good to know you can share a round of chemo together, should you need to.

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