In the first of our new series, Amazing Mums, we spoke to author and artist Matilda Tristram, 35, from London, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer when she was four months pregnant with her son, James (both pictured).
Here Matilda, whose son James is now four, talks about her cancer battle … and how she was faced with an impossible decision when she was first diagnosed.
‘I assumed the pains were nothing to worry about’
‘I’d been experiencing pain in my stomach on and off for a year or so, but assumed it was nothing. If you’re a fit and healthy 30-year-old, you never think that random pains are anything to worry about.
Then I got pregnant and my partner Tom, 37, and I were both delighted. But the pains quickly got worse and soon I couldn’t keep any food down. Doctors initially thought it was my pregnancy causing problems, or Norovirus, but I was certain something was really wrong.
At 15 weeks pregnant, I went to A&E in so much pain I had to lie on the floor of the waiting room. An MRI scan revealed a large tumour completely blocking my bowel, which needed to be removed straight away.
At the time, the doctors told me that although there was a chance that the tumour would be cancerous, because of my age it was most likely to be benign.
I hung on to that hope and looked forward to being able to go home and enjoy the rest of my pregnancy.
But a week later, I met my surgeon with Tom and my parents, and he told us the devastating news that the tumour was cancerous. Although they had removed everything they could see, I’d need six months of chemotherapy to ‘mop up any leftover cells’.
I remember thinking, ‘I don’t feel anything’. Instead I thought about what everything looked like; the tiny windowless room, the purple walls, the looks on my parents’ faces … ‘
‘Doctors suggested I have an abortion’
‘Before the tumour was discovered, one doctor suggested I have an abortion so they could do an X-ray to find out what was causing the pain. I knew I absolutely didn’t want to do that. And I felt the same when we started talking about the cancer treatment that I needed.
After the diagnosis, my partner Tom and I were faced with three choices; terminate the pregnancy and start chemotherapy straight away, delay my treatment until after the baby was born … or have the chemo during the pregnancy and hope that it wouldn’t harm the baby.
Starting chemo straight away, and continuing with the pregnancy, seemed like the least bad of the three options available. I didn’t want to delay treatment and give any remaining cancer cells the chance to grow.
We’d read that having chemotherapy during the first three months of a pregnancy can cause developmental problems in the baby, but after that point the risk is lower.
I should have been enjoying being pregnant, looking forward to giving birth, not worrying about dying and feeling scared that the drugs I was having to make my death less likely were harming our baby.
I tried not to think about it until our baby was born, to get through each day at a time.’
‘I had a new life to think about’
‘The week before I was due to start chemotherapy, Tom and I went away for a weekend. There in our B&B room, I felt the baby kick for the first time. I realised it helped to have a new life to think about, instead of death.
Throughout my pregnancy, I went for chemo sessions at hospital every two weeks, and for check-ups on the weeks when I wasn’t having chemo. And as my baby grew bigger, it was reassuring to feel that I always had company in the waiting rooms and treatment chairs.
I didn’t know anything about cancer before getting ill. I had the image in my mind of a cancer patient who can’t do anything and is ill all the time. But I was very lucky I didn’t get as ill as that.
In the beginning, the main side-effects were painful hands and feet and swollen lips but my doctors adjusted the dose. Towards the end, the drugs made me feel very tired and I also had infections, thanks to a lower immune system as a result of the chemo.’
‘I couldn’t handle being with other healthy mums-to-be’
‘I didn’t go to any antenatal classes – I just couldn’t handle being with other healthy, radiant mums-to-be.
But one thing that really helped me to cope was drawing. I was in hospital a lot, which was actually quite boring.
So I spent the time writing a diary in a comic-form about everything that was happening. Thinking about how to draw something was the only thing that distracted me from feeling afraid. My diary comics, Probably Nothing, were later published as a book.
My chemo stopped at 31 weeks to allow my immune system to recover before giving birth. Then I had James by caesarean section at 35 weeks.
When James was born I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. He weighed just over four pounds and because he was having breathing problems, he went straight to the ICU.
It was about twelve hours after James was born before I could see him. I had to take some time to recover from the birth. Then my mum pushed me round to the ICU in a wheelchair, but I had to wait outside as doctors were doing their rounds.
I cried. I was desperate to see him.
At last they let me in and I looked at the other incubators, wondering which baby was mine, before the nurses showed him to me, lying under a bright light, tiny, with a tube taped to his face going into his nose.
It took a while, until I held him and noticed each of his features that looked like mine or Tom’s, for me to believe that he was ours, and that he was really OK.’
‘I desperately wanted to enjoy James’ first few months’
‘James spent 10 days at hospital until he was strong enough to feed on his own. And then, a few weeks after we brought him home, I started my second lot of chemotherapy.
It felt much harder than the first time round. I needed another six doses, which would take another three months. Not only did my body feel weaker, I had a newborn baby to look after.
I desperately wanted to get on with my life, to enjoy James’ first few months.
I didn’t feel able to go to baby groups. I was jealous of other mums who didn’t have to think about cancer. I couldn’t breastfeed because I was having chemo, and couldn’t sleep because of the side-effects of my treatment.
Talking about about those things to others would have been too upsetting, so instead I tried to do other normal things, like going to cafes and parks, or for walks around where we lived.’
‘I felt overwhelmed’
‘Tom was amazing and looked after James while I was in hospital, and would get up to feed him in the night so I could sleep.
I felt overwhelmed the whole time. I expect Tom and my family did too. Me and my Mum went shopping a lot – one of the only nice things about that time was getting to spend a lot of time with her.
She came to most of the hospital appointments with me while Tom was at work.
Then, when James was four months old, I had my last dose of chemotherapy, and a clear scan at the end of the treatment. I didn’t feel particularly celebratory. My body was a mess – I had five years of remission to get through. But I did feel relieved.
I wanted to celebrate in a small way, so as not to ‘tempt fate’, we went for a walk along the river and for lunch in a pub.’
‘It’s a relief to worry about ordinary things’
‘Since then I’ve had regular scans and, next year, will have reached five years in remission. After that point I’ll be given the ‘all clear’ from bowel cancer, but I’m trying not to think about it too much just in case.
James is now four, at nursery, and is just wonderful. A healthy, hilarious boy, completely unharmed by the chemo I had when I was pregnant with him.
We haven’t had any serious conversations about my illness. He’s noticed my big scars on my tummy and we’ve talked about what they are. I’ve been in and out of hospital a lot throughout his life, so it seems normal to him.
It’s a relief to have time to start worrying about ordinary things, and not always be trying to ‘enjoy each moment’ in case I get cancer again.
Sometimes, when I’m happy, fear catches me out and I’m reminded of what I might lose. But I hope that reaction will gradually fade.’
‘I feel emotional about childhood milestones’
‘At the moment, I feel emotional when we reach different childhood milestones.
Like recently, when we took James to get a new bike. To see him so absorbed in trying it out, I felt relief that we were all there, in a shop together, doing something so normal.
Even though the threat of cancer is still present, we manage to enjoy our life together.
This year I wrote a new book, My Year in Small Drawings, a sketchbook and guide that I hope will encourage people to use drawing as a way to describe their lives and thoughts, just like I did when I was ill.’