Nicola Stewart, Christie fundraiser
In April 2013, I was in a bit of a mess. I was six months pregnant with our third child, Eliza, my husband and I should have been shopping blissfully for baby grows and painting the nursery with the same ecstatic excitement we’d felt when I was carrying James and Maisie, then five and two years old.
However, our third pregnancy had been spoilt in a way we could never have imagined, not even in our worst of nightmares.
In the previous month, I had been told I had cervical cancer. I had cervical cancer and I was pregnant.
I had had undiagnosed vaginal bleeding since the very early days of my pregnancy. We had rushed down to the Early Pregnancy Unit at the local hospital terrified that we were miscarrying this tiny life, who was barely days old. Ultrasound scans on a weekly basis for the first 12 weeks provided relief each week as our third child grew and seemed to be completely oblivious to all the anxiety we were experiencing.
Since a clear smear test 18 months previously, medical staff dismissed cervical cancer as a cause for the bleeds. We were told that “sometimes women just bleed in pregnancy”. Then, when I was around 24 weeks pregnant, another bleed occurred, and I sought reassurance that our baby was ok through a visit to the ante-natal unit. Hearing a heartbeat put our minds at rest. Following what had become a routine internal examination, a doctor I’d never seen before said it looked like I had a polyp and took a sample from my cervix.
Within a couple of days, I was asked to come back to see a doctor. Honestly, I thought it was simply an appointment to prescribe some iron tablets, so I sent my husband off to work. Fortunately, my parents said they’d attend with me, otherwise I would have been there alone apart from Maisie who was sat in her pushchair. It was at that moment I was given the news that turned our whole world upside down. I had cervical cancer.
Like any newly diagnosed cancer patient, I underwent examinations and scans, to determine how big the cancer was and what the most effective treatment was going to be. Though, unlike most other cancer patients, my scans were also studied to assess when they could safely deliver my unborn child, who we now knew was a girl. It was a balance of giving me the best chance of curative treatment in time and ensuring that Eliza had the best prospect of survival.
At this point I was told I would be treated at The Christie. The name of the hospital sent ripples of fear through me. The Christie? But that’s where ill people have to go…while I didn’t feel ill at all.
I spent the rest of the month waiting for 15 May - this was the date of my caesarean section. I would be 32 weeks pregnant.
The weeks became studded with appointments with oncologists at The Christie to explain my treatment plan – six weeks of chemotherapy (“and yes,” they said, “I would lose my hair.”)
I did get some chance to feel like a “normal” expectant mother by attending my ante-natal appointments, extra scans and finally having steroid injections to help Eliza’s lungs to develop quicker in anticipation of her early arrival.
I now had almost daily contact with a doctor, nurse or midwife. I said to my husband more than once, in tears, that I just didn’t want this to be me, I wanted my old life back.
All I could think about was the cancer. How fast was it growing inside me? Could I afford to wait until May? What about making sure James and Maisie had a Mum around? How could I not give Eliza the best chance of survival when it had been she that had been the reason I was in the right place at the right time?
Fast forward five years and I wish I could shout back in time to my earlier self. “Believe! Eliza is going to be fine, better than fine. This treatment is going to be successful. You’ve got this!”
My emotions ran high again in April 2018 as I had the privilege of running the London Marathon - a lifetime’s dream. Though, it was not my first marathon since treatment, it was in fact number six. Making me a seven times marathoner altogether and I won’t be stopping at the finish line on The Mall.
In 2018 I have set myself the challenge of running five marathons to mark five years in remission - one for each year of survivorship, who else to do it for but The Christie.
I was a runner long before I was diagnosed with cancer, even running through all three pregnancies and ran within weeks of giving birth. I continued to run through my treatment.
The hospital staff encouraged me to continue unless I got to the point where I couldn’t. That point didn’t arrive as I ran three or four times a week, it felt great. I believed that it was one way I could fight my battle, head on. I felt like me when I ran, not a cancer patient, just me.
Once treatment ended I maintained my running routine with Eliza accompanying me in her pram. I started to sign up for races again and I measured my recovery as my times came tumbling down to pre-treatment speeds.
In October 2014, I ran my first post cancer marathon. I was astounded to cross the line in a lifetime best of 03:50:12. Since then I ran more marathons and countless other races, the most recent being the Seville marathon in February 2018 – the first of my five in 2018 challenge.
I have also thrown the gauntlet down to my family and friends, asking if they would sign up to an event which improves their fitness, while pledging to raise money as part of my team – Nicola’s Christie Soldiers.
My view is that while being fit doesn’t prevent you from serious illness, it’s still an investment and better enables you to deal with and recover from whatever health problems you may encounter in the future.
The response I have had has been amazing. I’ve had pledges from friends, family, colleagues, my husband’s friends, friends’ husbands, neighbours, friends of friends – the list goes on. Even the very youngest of my local community are getting involved. The Rainbows are running their own marathon between them one night in the local park.
I was super proud to wear my Christie vest at the London marathon. I am eternally grateful to The Christie for permitting me the opportunity to do this in two ways – successful curative treatment and to offer me one of their prized golden bond places. “Hey - The Christie – I owe you big time!”