01 May 2019
When Fanny was seven months pregnant, she was told the shattering news that she had a Stage 2 soft-tissue sarcoma growing in her leg. She would have to choose between undergoing an intense course of chemotherapy that she thought might harm her baby, or risk not living long enough to meet her. This is Fanny’s amazing story that she has chosen to share ahead of her first Mother’s Day with baby daughter, Léna.
My story begins five years ago.
I’d left my home country of France to backpack around Australia for two years, and I was loving every minute—including the one where I met a young Aussie guy called Alex on New Year’s Eve of 2013.
We parted ways and I ended up settling in Darwin. But fate wanted us to meet again, and several years later I bumped into Alex at my local pub. The rest was history.
We married on 13 March last year, and just a month later we received the wonderful news that I was pregnant. I couldn’t wait for our two to become three.
But six months in, something was wrong.
My knee was swelling up, and was beginning to hurt. It was the same spot that I had badly bumped more than half a year earlier. The pain was getting worse the bigger my belly grew.
I had to stop yoga. I was struggling to carry myself around with the pain, to the point where I almost couldn’t climb the stairs in our house. Alex insisted that we go to the doctor.
We saw five GPs. None of them were very worried.
They said it was probably a cyst, and that I should wait until after the birth to look into it any further, because MRIs could hurt the baby. I found out that I could do an MRI without contrast, which was completely safe for the baby.
No one expected the result when it came in.
Stage 2 synovial sarcoma—I had a rare soft-tissue cancer sitting behind my right knee. It was almost 6 cm long. I had to ask the doctor to repeat it a few times, I just couldn’t believe it.
The pregnancy had been a surprise—but now this? I even remember saying, “Nope, not me. You’ve got the wrong patient”.
Doctors advised me to start immediate aggressive chemotherapy. I was told the chemo would shrink the tumour enough for surgeons to remove it. It was also to stop it from spreading to my lungs.
We were given two days’ notice to pack what we needed and get to Adelaide for treatment. There was so much to organise in such a short time. We were still reeling from the diagnosis.
No one knows what’s going to happen when you go through cancer, but with a baby on the way it’s so much worse. But because of Cancer Council SA Lodges—thankfully—finding accommodation in Adelaide was one hurdle that was already overcome.
The next was chemotherapy.
As any mother would be, I was scared. You see what chemo does to fully grown adults. What would it do to my baby?
We spent hours and hours discussing the treatment. Because I was well past my first trimester, doctors strongly advised me to choose chemo. I never would have thought that it would be safe for my baby. That just goes to show how far research has come already.
Although there was increased risk of low birthweight and my baby being born premature, they told me there shouldn’t be any more serious side effects, like birth defects. So we started.
I was put on the strongest treatment that existed. Four days of the highest dosage, 24 hours a day. And that’s just one cycle.
It was horrible. But my motto was, “This baby WILL have a mother”.
Those first four days were awful. But I got through them, with Alex by my side. After that first cycle, my body reacted in some scary ways.
I lost my hair almost immediately. I gained 11 kilograms of fluid. I was extremely fatigued, and suffered a long list of terrible side effects, like haemorrhoids. My thoughts were focussed entirely on my baby. I had heard about what chemo can do to cancer patients—so how could a tiny baby in the womb possibly cope?
After the first cycle, we were told the placenta had been damaged and my amniotic fluid was gone. The baby was starting to stress. It was then that doctors decided to induce a normal birth.
I was nervous and panicked. In my head was a scared voice saying, “But I’m not due for another six weeks!” I started having contractions. For a moment, things were looking positive.
But without warning, the baby’s heart rate dropped, and the doctors decided to undergo an emergency C-section. I was given a spinal epidural, so I was conscious the whole time. All I could think was, “Maybe the doctors were wrong. Maybe the chemo did hurt her. Maybe I won’t get to meet her”.
Doctors lifted my baby out. She wasn’t breathing.
I could see the look on their faces. And on Alex’s face. Seconds feel like hours at a time like that. It took eight minutes of oxygen for her to breathe on her own.
That’s when I was able to hold her for the first time. I just cried. I was so overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “She’s been through so much already, and this is just the first day of her life”.
Léna Coco McKenzie was born on 14 November at 4.26 am.
She took Alex’s last name, so I thought Léna was a nice French touch. And Coco, well, that was just a little bit of glitter sprinkled in between. Born at 34 weeks, Léna weighed just 1.8 kilograms.
She had no hair, and my first thought was that the chemo had somehow affected her. What if she had been suffering all this time as I had? But they tested the placenta and confirmed that there was no pass over. Léna was safe and untouched by chemo.
Doctors decided to postpone the next round of chemotherapy to give my wound time to heal. It meant that I was able to breastfeed my daughter for the first time.
For eight days, I was able to feed her. That was so special. It was after my body had cleared my last chemo, and before the next one started. It wasn’t easy—I didn’t have much milk, but Léna helped me.
But all too soon, it was time for the next round of chemotherapy.
My wonderful Alex did so much. As well as being a new father and my husband, he was also my carer, and took over my role as mother too. After each treatment, I had to rest for three weeks. It takes that long for your white blood cell count to recover.
Rounds three and four were followed by bad infections. I just wanted to be well enough to spend time getting to know Léna. I was eager to finish this stage of treatment, and get the cancer out of me. But even after going through the most aggressive of chemotherapy treatments, the tumour had only shrunk by 4 mm.
If my original tumour had been much larger, I might have had to have my leg amputated.
In February, I went under the knife. I had two surgeries in a week. The first one cut out the tumour from behind my knee. The second one pulled up my calf muscle to fill in the huge hole, and grafted skin from my thigh. I haven’t counted the stitches, but I would guess that there are more than 20.
The first time I looked at that scar, I thought I looked like someone in a horror story. But given that there was a possibility of amputation, I now look at it and feel blessed that I have my leg.
One of the best parts of coming out of surgery was knowing that we would get to go home to Darwin and I would be able to spend more time with my beautiful baby girl and my wonderful husband. Just the three of us.
I’m looking forward to my first Mother’s Day. When I look at my amazing little girl, I’m filled with pride and love. She’s already so strong. And I’m going to raise her to keep fighting, to keep being positive, and to not let anyone tell her what to do or who to be.
So please spend this Mother’s Day with your loved ones.
And if you would like to make a gift that will make a genuine difference, donate to Cancer Council’s research on their behalf.
What better gift is there than a cancer free future?
Fanny, Alex and Léna