Sarah Shaddick has set up her Christmas tree and started wrapping presents for her daughter Halle, excited about their first festive season together, despite the new mother living in the shadow of incurable cancer.
Just weeks before last Christmas, Ms Shaddick was 23 weeks pregnant and looking forward to fulfilling her dream of becoming a parent for the first time with partner Luke Hill when doctors delivered devastating news.
Scans found a rare cancer known as leiomyosarcoma — which usually begins in the body’s smooth muscle — had spread to both of her lungs.
“It was a very tough day,” she says when she was told that the cancer was incurable.
“It’s a really scary thought to know you’re pregnant with cancer. It’s like, ‘What shall I do?'”
After doing her own research, Ms Shaddick accepted her cancer specialist Catherine Shannon’s recommendation that she begin chemotherapy while she was still pregnant, comforted that the drugs she would receive were safe for her baby and desperate for the treatment to enable her to spend as much time with Halle as possible. she is born.
Dr. Shannon, of the Mater Cancer Care Center in Brisbane, said it is safe to use certain types of chemotherapy in the second or third trimester of pregnancy without any adverse effects on the mother or baby.
“We had to take drugs that we knew could work for her rare sarcoma and that we knew were safe during pregnancy,” she said.
A healthy baby after chemo pregnancy
Ms. Shaddick from Jimboomba, south of Brisbane, received chemotherapy every three weeks while she was still pregnant. She lost her hair and felt fatigued, but otherwise tolerated the treatment well.
“At the end of your pregnancy, a lot of people get exhausted,” she said.
“You couldn’t really tell the difference between the pregnancy or the chemotherapy.
“I had no nausea. I could do everything from day to day.”
Ms Shaddick went into labor 37 and a half weeks into her pregnancy and Halle was born “perfectly healthy” on March 9 weighing 2.4 kilograms.
“It was an amazing experience. I absolutely loved giving birth,” she said.
“She’s been fine. No problems, no illnesses. She’s an easy baby. She almost always sleeps through.
“She’s just starting to crawl and trying to get into everything. She’s an absolute delight and makes us laugh so much.
“Having hair is the goal of everything.
“I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life other than being a mom and the fact that I get to do that every day now. I’m thankful and enjoying it. It’s my favorite thing.”
Knowing that her cancer is incurable, Mrs. Shaddick focuses on “living in the now”, appreciating the normality of family life between her cancer treatments.
She enjoys simple pleasures such as being able to cook dinner and sit down at the table with her family.
The 28-year-old has also set a goal to visit every state and territory in Australia with Luke and Halle before her daughter’s first birthday.
They’ve visited family in Adelaide and friends in Perth, experienced snow in Tasmania and swam in a waterhole in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory.
“I still have NSW, the ACT and Victoria to do,” said Ms Shaddick.
Although her cancer has become resistant to chemotherapy, she will receive radiation treatment of a tumor in her pelvis before Christmas and will start a new targeted therapy – which works in a different way than chemotherapy – before the turn of the year.
“I always take it as it comes,” she said.
“As long as there’s a plan instead of what I’m doing… that just keeps us going.
“Because it’s such a rare cancer… there’s no road map of what lies ahead. I’m just enjoying it right now.
“It’s impossible… anyone can write a date on a piece of paper and say, ‘This is your due date,’ because everyone is unique and will have a different experience.
“We’re just dealing with what’s happening at the moment as best we can.
“I feel like having Halle, I’m doing what I have to do with my life. Aside from having cancer and undergoing treatment, I’m living life just the way I think I should.”
Esther White, clinical nursing consultant for the Mater Cancer Care Center, said she felt privileged to assist Ms Shaddick in her cancer journey, including holding Halle for her when needed during medical consultations.
“Sarah said to me one day, ‘You know Esther, I feel guilty because I don’t want anyone else holding Halle. I just want to savor every moment with her,'” Ms White recalled.
“I told her, that’s okay.”
“I am one of the few people who will allow Sarah Halle to be kept out of the context of immediate family. That is a privilege for me…an incredible honor.”
Aside from seeing Mrs. Shaddick when she comes to the Mater for her cancer treatment, Mrs. White has begun meeting her outside the infertility clinic to discuss “memory-making activities”.
“We sit and we let Sarah seep in and she often takes her time getting to it and then we dig into the hard stuff,” Ms White said.
“There are often tears and there is a lot of reflection and talking about fears and talking about what she would like to do.
“We talked about how she can start collecting things for Halle with the support of loved ones.”
A hard lump under her ribcage
Ms Shaddick was first diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in mid-2020 after feeling a hard lump under her ribcage.
Surgeons removed a 1.4 kilogram tumor and with it her left kidney.
Less than a year later, the cancer returned in her back and thigh. Doctors cut it out again and a few months later she unexpectedly became pregnant.
“It was a surprise,” said Ms. Shaddick. “It was like, ‘Great. Here’s the baby we’ve always wanted.’
When she was 12 weeks pregnant, more cancer was cut out of her neck, and at 23 weeks, after an otherwise “perfect” pregnancy, she started having trouble breathing.
“I couldn’t take a deep breath, it hurt,” said the young mother.
“At that point, once it hits my lungs, I’m considered essentially incurable.”
Amidst the grief, Mrs. Shaddick has found great joy in her daughter, now eight months old.
She talks excitedly about packing toys for Halle for Christmas, including a new teddy bear.