Lisa Bywater shares her experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer whilst pregnant and becoming a mummy to a premature baby at 34+1 weeks in 2020.
Carrying babies, for me, means carrying numbers. Marking weeks of gestation, recording my weight, eating my five-a-day, watching the midwife’s hands and measuring tape on my bump. Inside scanning rooms, the sonographer’s careful digits on a screen. I knew to the minute when my first pregnancy became my first labour, my waters breaking in an adrenaline-soaked rush fifteen minutes before midnight on my first day of maternity leave. My son’s birth after thirty-five hours of that same labour at 11.02am two days before his due date, two days before his cousin’s birthday, 19 days after mine.
“How far along are you?” the consultant asked after breaking the news of the breast cancer that would now forever alter the course of my life and the life I carried inside me, six months into my second pregnancy. It was the number that caught in my throat. 28 weeks. The crushing realisation that this time, there would be nothing spontaneous about my daughter’s entrance to the world, that the numbers I had obsessed over for so long would now make the difference, to both of us, between being okay or not.
For five weeks, we waited for more numbers, as my daughter slept and grew and hiccupped and kicked inside me and the rest of the world began counting down to Christmas Day. Here was one tumour size, now another; here there was more pre-invasive disease, there the hormone receptor status. The obstetrician was quietly reassuring – delivery from 33 weeks onwards, he told us, came with a vanishingly small risk of complications or death. But those percentage points represented real babies – how could we bargain even with those small odds?
Christmas passed in muted colours, one year quietly turned into the next, and then there was no more waiting; either we delivered the baby now so my treatment could begin, or waited until she was full term, gambling my health in the process. We stared at each other, wishing someone more grown up than us would make the decision – but, as with so many things we’d come to realise since becoming adults, becoming parents, there was no right or wrong; there was only the right, right now.
My daughter was born at 17:17 on the 17th, at 34 weeks and a day’s gestation, three days before her brother’s birthday, her small brown head cupped in the midwife’s hands. I was torn apart with grief and awe; I had lost six weeks of holding her safe inside, but gained a daughter, a real, warm, breathing baby, a miracle.
Now began a new routine, one which stretched us thinly between home and the hospital. As reports of a new virus worried at our heels, we traipsed in and out of the hand-washing room, in and out of intensive care, learning how to hold this tiny new human with all her trailing tubes. No breastfeeding, no skin-to-skin; I held a syringe of formula aloft so gravity would feed my daughter for me, the white liquid disappearing uneventfully into her stomach. I tried to look confident as I changed her nappy for the first time through the holes of the incubator, dropping dirty cotton wool balls onto her clean sheets.
In the weeks leading up to this point, I’d read all the articles and books about prematurity I could find; had lengthy text chats with friends whose babies had arrived weeks before their due dates. I prepared tiny clothes, tried to picture her face, produced one measly syringe of colostrum (which I found months later, forgotten, at the back of the freezer). I’d seen friends’ early babies on social media, pictures of their tiny, wizened fingers and faces, tubes and plastic walls and woolly hats. I was prepared for noise, for tube feeding, for a baby more alien than cherub, for wrinkles and breathing assistance and the constant beep of machines.
I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to leave my child in hospital while I guiltily enjoyed nights of uninterrupted sleep. I wasn’t prepared for day after day of bus journeys to hospital and back, forgetting in mere hours how it felt to be pregnant at all, feeling grief for the pregnancy I hadn’t even had time to enjoy. I wasn’t prepared for the call, early on my son’s birthday, telling me my daughter had gone downhill overnight; after weeks of everyone telling me she would probably be fine, I howled down the phone to my sister that maybe she wouldn’t be, and it would be our fault.
I didn’t know that we could take such an impossibly small baby home and carry on as if everything was normal, bathing her sparrow legs in the basin and laughing at how comically big her crib and bouncer appeared next to her doll-sized frame. I didn’t know that the sharp smell of the hand sanitiser would have me sobbing a month later when I returned to the hospital to dance with my own tubes and beeps on the chemotherapy ward; that nearly two years later, I would still struggle to watch televised scenes of birth or small babies in hospital.
I keep counting: every month, I weigh both children, obsess over kilos and centimetres, my son’s growth spurts, my daughter’s steady line on the chart. The days and weeks and months of my treatment, the days and weeks and months that have elapsed since I finished this round, or that surgery. My daughter is not like my son: she is quick to start moving, an early walker, a climber who necessitates every baby-proofing measure we never needed in our life before she was born. She is slow to speak, and I worry; what if this is our fault?
What irrevocable damage might we have caused in our selfish decision to put my health first?
But I count, and I measure, and I hope that I can carry us and all our numbers forever.
Lisa Bywater was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child in late 2019. She started treatment a month after delivering her daughter, Connie, at 34 weeks.
A former bookseller, Lisa currently works for National Book Tokens and lives in South East London with her husband and two children.
She spends her rare free time trying to read the optimistic number of books on her shelves.