Written by Brisbane family photographer Minna Burgess
There is never a good time to be given a cancer diagnosis, but for this young family the discovery that new Dad to be, Peter, had testicular cancer could not have come at a worse time. With his wife, Tracey, 30 weeks pregnant it should have been a joyful time preparing for the birth of their first child, but instead it became a battle for life, for all three of them. I spoke to Peter and Tracey about their inspirational journey back to health and the many ways in which it strengthened their family bond and helped them appreciate the small things in life.
It took Peter and Tracey three years to conceive Ashton so when the pregnancy test finally turned positive in 2009 they were over the moon. “I was just so happy and excited,” says Tracey. “I always wanted to be a mother and finally my dream was coming true. I yelled out to Peter from the bathroom to come quickly and then showed him the test. He stood there with this amazed (but scared) expression on his face and then asked me to immediately do another test,” she recalls laughing.
Unfortunately Tracey had a very complicated pregnancy. “I ended up with early onset preeclampsia and progressed to HELLP syndrome,” she says. “I was scared and worried about the health of our baby and felt disappointed that my body was failing us.”
Peter’s cancer diagnosis complicated things further. The couple was together in the doctor’s room when he told them Peter had testicular cancer. “I immediately jumped up and asked: “How can you be so sure?” Tracey remembers. “I was in denial and did not want to believe it. Two days after our baby shower he had surgery to remove the cancer and his testicle.”
“I told Peter that I loved him and would be by his side the whole way through. We kept saying to each other: “We will get through this!” We HAVE to get through this!”
Ashton arrived five days later via an immediate emergency cesarean.
“We were both very sick,” explains Tracey. “He came at 32 weeks and spent nearly 8 weeks in NICU and special care nursery with many premature issues such as respiratory distress, ventilation support and jaundice. It was an extremely tough time watching our longed for baby fighting for his life in an incubator while I myself was recovering from major surgery.”
HELLP Syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. On the www.preeclampsia.org website it is described as a syndrome difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are sometimes mistaken for other conditions such as gastritis and flu. “The global mortality rate of HELLP syndrome has been reported to be as high as 25%. That’s why it’s critical for expecting mothers to be aware of the condition and its symptoms so they can receive early diagnosis and treatment,” they write on their website.
Symptoms include; headache, nausea, indigestion, abdominal or chest tenderness and upper right side pain (from liver distention), shoulder pain or pain when breathing deeply, bleeding, changes in vision and swelling.
With everything that was going on with Peter, and their baby fighting for life in hospital, Tracey had little time to focus on her own healing.
“I think I was five days post cesarean when the hospital phoned asking for the expressed milk to be brought into the hospital. Peter and I had an argument because he had his very first important MRI appointment before his chemo started, and I did not want our premature baby being given formula. I ended up driving myself in to the hospital despite the pain and risks. I was determined to get there as our baby needed his milk.”
For Tracey and Peter what followed was a roller coaster of ups and downs everyday. “The hardest part was not having the strength to support my family and missing the beginning of my firstborn son’s life.” Says Peter. “I am proud of Tracey for being such a good mother and for all the support she offered me.”
“It really was the most lonely and trying time of our life,” says Tracey. It kind of just felt like it wasn’t even really happening to us. Most days I just functioned on autopilot. I was driving Peter to chemo at the Wesley and spending all day with him while he received treatment (all the while expressing milk) then driving him home to Springfield and continuing on to Ipswich General Hospital to bath, spend time with Ashton and deliver the liquid gold to him.”
“I felt sad Peter was missing out on spending time with our son and yet I would hurry just to get in there and spend every minute I could with him. I was excited to see him and longed to hold him in my arms. I even felt guilty at times because Peter missed so many of those visits,” she says.
For Tracey there were also many stressful moments holding Ashton as the alarms were set off constantly from changes in his heart rate/oxygen levels. “He would just curl up on my skin and sleep making little noises or skipping breaths,” she recalls. “They were brief and precious moments during my crazy, busy day. Sometimes I felt like he wasn’t really mine when I had to walk away and leave him there.”
In her darkest moments Tracey felt that this should not be happening to them. “I just wanted to run away and hide, find a corner and curl up in it bawling. I was so afraid that Ashton would never get to know his Daddy,” she says.
Peter was in his early thirties when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. About 740 men are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year and it counts for about 1% of all cancers in Australian men. The average age of diagnosis is 35. in some men testicular cancer does not cause any noticeable symptoms. Other men may notice symptoms such as swelling or a lump in the testicle, a feeling of unevenness or heaviness, and even back-pain or stomach aches. These symptoms should be checked by a doctor immediately. For more information go to www.cancer.org.au or www.canceraustralia.gov.au
(pictures taken by Tracey and Peter)
“Ashton finally made it home on Christmas Eve, which was the best gift to all of us. I could feel my heart beating in my chest when I carried him out of the big sliding hospital doors into the sunlight. I was so happy we were finally free,” says Tracey.
“I was completely in love with the beautiful little boy that our love created. When he looked at me I felt like I was the centre of his world – the only mum on the planet. I was in awe that we had created such a perfect, little human being. He was (and still is) an unwell baby plagued with reflux, allergies and low immune system, severe illness and chronic ear disease. Yet you will NEVER meet a more kind, gentle and stoic boy. He amazes me with his ability to keep fighting despite every hurdle thrown in his path.”
“I am proud of my family because we are fighters. I am so grateful that we are here and alive together. We have been through more than some people experience in a lifetime but if we can survive this we can survive anything. I have learnt that I am stronger than I ever thought possible. We can get through anything just as long as we have faith and don’t give up.”
When Ashton was about two and a half Tracey and Peter decided they wanted a sibling for him. “We were not sure if this was even possible after chemotherapy but Peter’s oncologist gave us the go ahead,” she says. “We conceived on our first attempt.”
Sadly a loss at ten weeks was followed by another loss before finally a little brother came along for Ashton. “I think I held my breath for the entire nine months straight,” says Tracey. We ended up delivering Callum at 37 weeks by emergency cesarean again. He made it to term and was so healthy. It was such a happy experience for us all and I was so glad Peter was able to experience special moments such as cutting the cord and the first cuddles.”
“I felt utter relief when he was put in my arms. It was such a different experience to when Ash was born. We were just so happy to have a healthy baby. Callum is such a strong-willed, brave little boy who is wise beyond his years and does not take no for an answer.”
“So here we are over five years down the track. Peter is cancer free. We finally married last year after all the craziness died down. We are just busily living our life – work, family and close friends. After such a crazy, messed up time we just enjoy the peace and quiet and aim for a stress-free life as much as possible.”
Ashton started prep this year at a local school. “He loves it,” says Tracey. “He never, ever stops talking, even in his sleep he recounts his daily activities or just chuckles. It is so cute! He has a very curious nature and ask so many questions. Sometimes I don’t even know how to answer them.”
“Callum attends a local childcare centre and is a lot stronger and more boisterous than his bigger brother but their bond is obvious to everyone.”
If your family is going through cancer, dealing with pregnancy complications or otherwise having a difficult time Tracey offers the following advice:
“Try not to focus on the negatives but face each day as it happens. Believe in yourself and your loved ones. Stay strong and you will get through. There is always a light at the end of the dark tunnel. Encourage and support each other as it gives strength to keep going.”
I think this experience taught me to be grateful for what we do have in life and to cherish every moment. You never know when life will throw you a curveball.”
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Minna Burgess is a baby and family photographer based South West of Brisbane. If you would like to book a family session or if you have your own remarkable story related to birth, pregnancy or motherhood please email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0432 953 003.