A family’s journey back to health

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.

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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)

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“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.”

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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.”

Please leave a message of support in the comment section below and let us know how this story has affected you.

Follow Minna Burgess Photography on Facebook or subscribe to this blog to receive notifications of more stories in the “Remarkable Mothers” blog series.

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; info@minnaburgess.com or call 0432 953 003.

Elly SmartAugust 17, 2015 - 7:02 am

I know this family personally (they are regular customers at the Servo where I work) and I have watched them go through almost all of these life’s struggles, to say they amaze me is an understatement, they absolutely blow me away with their positive attitude and strength in each other…They are always full of smiles and love for each other and their dedication to their two precious boys is unmatched. If more young people were half as good as these two people this world would have nothing to worry about with our future generations…They are truly an inspirational couple and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them both.

Baby M’s Story

Written by Brisbane-based baby photographer Minna Burgess.

For a large percentage of expectant parents there is one pressing question on their lips when they excitedly go for their baby’s 20-week ultrasound. “Is it a boy or a girl?” Most would argue that there are only two possible answers to this simple question, yet for Jane and her husband Stuart the answer they would eventually receive was more complicated than they could have ever imagined. I spoke to Jane about the incredible roller coaster ride of emotions that her family embarked on mid last year when told the doctors had no way of finding out the true gender of their 4th baby.

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Eight scans, during the first half of Jane’s pregnancy, all came back with normal results. “Up until this point we had been told that the baby appeared to be a ‘normal’ looking girl,” says Jane, “but on June 19th, 2014 we found out that our baby was missing a chromosome.

“A month later we were told our baby had ambiguous genitals and the doctors could no longer tell if the baby was a boy or a girl. I remember the date because it was my birthday,” says Jane. “I was so mad and felt so let down by the hospital. I wanted to know if they suspected it earlier. All the doctor did was give me false hope, it made me so angry.”

Overcome with emotion and thrown into the unknown Jane remembers feeling like she was going to go crazy at times.

“No one could tell us anything except just wait until the baby is born. We didn’t mind either way but we did not want to have to choose a gender. That was the one thing I did not think I could do. The most difficult part was not being able to get any answers, we had all these bad possibilities hanging around and I was just so disconnected to my baby because I didn’t even know if he or she would make it to birth.”

Throughout the pregnancy Jane’s husband Stuart was her biggest support.

“Stuart was so incredibly strong and let me fall apart anytime I needed to. He kept telling me we would get through whatever happened (and he was right). This entire experience has made us closer. I don’t think I could have gotten through all of this on my own. Even when I was probably being irrational and lashing out at things that were not relevant, just because I was lost and scared, he was still there and is still there now helping me make the best decisions we can for our baby.”

“I was told by so many doctors that babies like this don’t usually make it to birth. I kept telling myself that this baby fought so hard to hang on so I needed to fight. I needed to be strong and just keep on going and we would get through it,” Jane recalls.

OII Australia, Organisation Intersex International Australia, explains on their website that “sex characteristics are more varied than most people are aware, intersex people account for somewhere between 1 in 2000 and 1.7% of births. Confusion around the birth of an intersex baby most often stem from ambiguous genitals. A baby may have ovotestis, a combination of ovarian and testicular tissue.”

When baby M was born it was confirmed that there was no way for the doctors and specialists to determine the sex. Jane and Stuart had to decide whether to bring up their baby as a boy or a girl. Choosing the gender of your newborn baby is not something you would ever expect to be asked to do. For Jane it was one of the most difficult decisions she had ever been faced with.

“We didn’t know what to do. We had no idea how to decide. Our baby has all of the reproductive organs of a boy and girl (penis, scrotum, teste, vagina, uterus, fallopian tube, ovary). One surgeon told us that, in his experience, babies that have male looking genitals, like M, have been exposed to testosterone while inside their mothers.”

“With our baby looking male he would probably have testosterone imprinted in his brain and would most likely feel like a boy. That is what we based our decision on. This is only one doctor’s best guess though and there are no guarantees he will feel like a boy,“ she says.

Missing a chromosome, does not automatically mean you are intersex. It affects everyone differently. In M’s case it affected the way his sex organs developed.

“Just like his chromosomes are almost split 50/50 he seems to be split 50/50 with having the female anatomy on one side of his body. He also has hypospadias which means he wees from the same place a girl would, even though he has a penis,” says Jane.

“I hope M can understand our thought process and why we chose to bring him up as a boy. I feel like we have made the right decision.”

During those early days Jane wished someone would tell her that it was all a dream. “People would say “it will be ok”, but at that point it didn’t feel like it would be.”

Support from her Nan helped Jane through her darkest times.

“My Nan had a disabled child and was the only person who had any experience with anything similar to what I was going through. She had experienced things so much worse than me. She understood my fear and worry, and every emotion I felt. She had been there and was so great.”

OII Australia recommends counselling, psychosocial and peer support to help process the emotions and confusion that naturally come up as a result of being told you have an intersex baby. Most importantly they point out that: “Diversity is natural. All sorts of people live happily with different bodies.”

“Intersex people lead happy and fulfilling lives and are active in all walks of life in Australia,” they write on their website.

For more information go to www.oii.org.au 

(Images taken by M’s Mum & Dad – Look at that gorgeous smile!)

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If you are going through a similar situation, Jane advises you stay away from all the online horror stories.

“I know that it seems like it is not ok. I understand how terrifying the unknown is, but it really will be ok. You will get through it and no matter what you will have a gorgeous baby at the end of it.”

“Today M is the happiest little baby ever. His smile brightens our day. Our other kids love him so much. They love watching him learn new things and get so excited when he starts doing something new. I have always been an openminded person but having M has definitely opened me up to being even more accepting of anyone who isn’t considered ‘normal’. It has also made me aware of how little knowledge and support there are for people like him,” Jane explains.

Looking at the sparkle in M’s eyes and those delicious baby cheeks it is very clear that perfection comes in all kinds of packages. I am so honored to share his story with you. I hope he is met with an open heart and mind wherever he goes. In Jane’s words:

“We hope to give M enough support and guidance that he will always feel comfortable and never ashamed of himself. My biggest wish for M is happiness and acceptance. I just want him to be happy.”

Please leave a message of support in the comment section below and let us know how this story has affected you.

Follow Minna Burgess Photography on Facebook or subscribe to this blog to receive notifications of more stories in the “Remarkable Mothers” blog series.

Minna Burges is a maternity, newborn, baby & family photographer based in Springfield Lakes, 30 minutes South West of Brisbane. To view her work click on “galleries” in the menu bar or visit her Facebook page  – Contact Minna on 0432 953 003 or via email: info@minnaburgess.com if you are interested in booking a session or if you have your own remarkable story to share.

LouiseAugust 12, 2015 - 4:22 am

What a beautiful boy with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Good on your Stacey and Chris, you’re both doing a fabulous job.

ElkeAugust 12, 2015 - 4:40 am

You did a great job in documenting the journey this people went through. Beautiful project.

tamaraAugust 12, 2015 - 4:56 am

this story is incredible. such courageous parents…and a beautiful baby boy! thank you so much for sharing this.

NoeleneAugust 12, 2015 - 8:37 am

A truly remarkable story of love, courage and joy told with warmth and honesty. He is indeed a beautiful little boy with amazing parents, what a great start to life he has. This is an amazing caring and safe forum for moms and dads to share their stories of adversity and love, well done Minna for this initiative.

Remembering the newborn stage – Brisbane Baby Photography

There is something truly magical about natural newborn photography. Simplistic, neutral set-ups and colour tones allow us to really get drawn in by the beautiful tiny human being in front of us and focus all of our attention on their gorgeous little details. Their beauty is astounding to me and when captured without distracting props it becomes artwork in and of itself.

There really is nothing more perfect than a brand new baby. Their smell, their dark soulful eyes, their tiny finger nails. It all fits so perfectly and makes us stare in awe at them as we try to grasp how we possibly could have created something so flawless. We want to remember it all and the experience is so all consuming that we feel, with absolute certainty, that we will never forget a single thing. The reality is that it is such a short, fleeting time. And we do forget. We forget because we fall in love every single day with each new emerging detail. The little rolls of chubbiness on their thighs and back that make us feel proud because we are doing a great job at nurturing them. Their eyes that slowly start to change colour and resemble ours or a family member’s. Their smiles that now come as a result of us interacting with them. All of a sudden they roll, their first tooth breaks through, they pull those little knees up under themselves and you know crawling is not far off.

You don’t even realise that you no longer have your newborn, simply because you are too busy loving the gorgeous growing baby in your arms. You don’t know you are forgetting until you flick through your mobile phone snap shots, or your point & shoot camera, and two black soulful eyes stare back at you from the screen! In that moment it feels like a deep cellular memory has been been reactivated, and though you can’t quite believe your baby was ever that tiny, you feel it in your body. The image evokes the love, the worry, the overwhelming sense of protection and pride that you felt when you held your newborn in those first, precious days. That one image brought it all back. The power of photography is incredible like that. It can transport you back in time and bring forward deep emotions that would otherwise be almost impossible to access again.

Imagine having professional images with such definition that you feel you can almost reach out and touch your newborn again. Picture those perfect little details captured up close, and those gorgeous newborn eyes staring right at you with intense clarity. When I feel truly connected to an image there is usually nothing else that pulls me in but the beauty and personality of the subject. It is their gorgeous features and expressions that tell the story of who they are at that time in their lives. Props distract from this. No matter what photographer you choose to capture the newborn stage, I urge you to remember that, one day you will be looking at your photographs and your eyes will scan the picture for the parts you miss the most about your newborn baby. The props that seemed so cute become a dated element that holds no real value. Get a few of those adorable shots, definitely. But if you would like to end up with a series of images, that really bring back the magic of the first couple of weeks, then I cannot recommend enough that you go with set-ups where the focus is purely on your baby. The simplicity of this type of newborn photography creates a wonderful timeless feel, and takes you on a journey back to a time that you’ll no doubt feel went by way too quickly.

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Trip to Denmark – Part 2

Do my sisters have beautiful children or what? Loving these pictures, so much beauty! Our holiday fell during the graduation of my oldest niece so I took a few portraits – she looked so gorgeous and we had such a special day celebrating.

Trip to Denmark – part 1

I spent the entire month of June in Denmark with my daughter visiting family. We had the most amazing time. While we were away my husband moved us back to Springfield Lakes so we are now back in the Brisbane area and we’re absolutely loving being back. I’m currently 30 weeks pregnant and not taking clients, but can’t wait to see all my beautiful QLD client when I return to work next year. I will be sure to keep you all updated with my own maternity and newborn pics in the meantime, I’m hoping to do some pregnancy images in the next few weeks. During our holiday I did a session with my sister’s children, I incorporated a lot of the Beloved techniques and love how they turned out – even though I had a terrible case of hay fever and was sneezing like a mad woman the entire time! My daughter got in on a few too. Here are some of my favourites:

TomDecember 15, 2014 - 12:41 am

Beautiful work