Elle Halliwell and baby Tor at the launch of her book
Elle Halliwell and baby Tor at the launch of her book "A Mother's Choice". Picture: Sam Ruttyn

‘I’m crushed with guilt when I look at my son’

TWO years ago, almost to the day, I discovered I was both pregnant and had blood cancer in the space of 48 hours. In the months following that fateful period, my life became a whirlwind of doctor's appointments, tests and ultrasounds, all wrapped up in a big bag of worry, anticipation and emotion.

I look back on that time occasionally and wonder how I got through it. My family and close friends often tell me they rarely saw my positive demeanour crack, despite the huge weight I was carrying - both literally and metaphorically - as my pregnancy progressed.

Internally, I often felt broken, and wondered constantly if my decision to continue with the pregnancy despite my doctor's advice was reckless, stupid or both.

I knew at the time that no matter what the outcome, I'd never be the same person. I like the person I am now much more, though. She's more patient and kind, but also has a quiet fierceness and conviction, which only a life-threatening event could instil.

Physically, I'm also different. I bear the battle scars of motherhood; a softer belly, fine lines of worry carved on my forehead by a rambunctious toddler, and a chest which reflects the short time I was able to breastfeed my son before beginning cancer treatment.

Elle Halliwell has written about her horrific choice between starting cancer treatment and giving herself her best chance at life, or continuing her pregnancy and saving her son.
Elle Halliwell has written about her horrific choice between starting cancer treatment and giving herself her best chance at life, or continuing her pregnancy and saving her son.

My immune system struggles with the twice-daily bombardment of tyrosine kinase inhibitors - the drugs which in 2001 changed the life expectancy of people with chronic myeloid leukaemia from just a few years to a few decades.

I take them twice a day, during three-hour fasts, and in the 16 months since I began taking them, the level of cancer cells in my blood has dropped from about 29 per cent to 0.0051 per cent. It sounds barely worth noting, such a minuscule number like 0.0051.

But it means everything. It means I'm in molecular remission, and the drugs - despite causing a constant fatigue and aching bones - are working.

Pre-cancer and pre-baby me had very different priorities. My workdays were long, and often a few drinks were the only way to unwind the tension which had built up during the day. My diet was OK, but far from a major focus and nutrition labels were completely foreign to me.

I've slowed down since then. My life is more considered; more deliberate, from the things I consume to the things I throw away. I no longer try to rush through life. Unlike the old, impatient, ambitious me, I'm content to leave boxes unticked and ladder rungs unclimbed.

I may be a different person, but life continues on. Like any thirty-something mum I'm juggling a household, a four-day a week job and the daily ups and downs of life.

My son is at daycare, and with my immunity so low I catch even the smallest bugs, which cause my blood counts to plummet. I'm currently battling anaemia, low phosphorous levels and low white blood cells, and while I usually push through the exhaustion, I know it's not a smart thing to do.

Elle Halliwell has continued working despite her illness, but finds she’s susceptible to every daycare bug her son brings home. Picture: Bianca Cheah
Elle Halliwell has continued working despite her illness, but finds she’s susceptible to every daycare bug her son brings home. Picture: Bianca Cheah

I often think about the choice I had to make. Risk my life and save my baby, or save myself.

And every time I look at my son, it crushes me with guilt knowing I seriously contemplated the other option. I was one of the lucky ones, though.

Many other women who have been dealt a cancer card and a baby card have not been so fortunate, which is why I am always quick to stress that no choice is the right one, and every woman must consider their personal circumstances. It's likely that if I already had a child, my decision would have been different.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was told the cancer I had was just down to a stroke of bad luck; a random genetic mutation which caused my chromosomes 22 and 9 to split and swap parts. But I believe there was more to it than bad luck, and am on a mission to learn as much as I can about preventing illness through diet, nutrition and self-care.

I'm currently completing an advanced diploma of integrative natural health, as I'm determined to set a foundation of good health for my son, to ensure he has the best chance of living a long, healthy life.

I also have to consider the possibility that my compromised health could make me susceptible to other illnesses, so I'm focused on arming my body with the tools it needs to keep myself as fit and healthy as it can be considering the circumstances.

My new goal is to reach complete molecular remission, which I hope to achieve sometime in the next year. I didn't celebrate my 'cancerversary' on the weekend; I was too sick to do much more than rest.

I am planning a party though, for the moment I see the words 'undetectable' on my test results. That's definitely a milestone to celebrate.

Here's hoping it won't be too far away.

 

Nobody would envy the impossible choice Elle had to make.
Nobody would envy the impossible choice Elle had to make.

 

A Mother's Choice by Elle Halliwell is available now from all good booksellers and online.


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