I had to choose to abort my baby or die after cancer diagnosis while I was pregnant – The SunNovember 23, 2019
A YOUNG mum was forced to make the agonising decision to abort her unborn baby or die – after being diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer while pregnant.
Briony Maltman, 27, was told by doctors that the only way she would be able to survive and see her existing children grow up would be to have a termination.
Briony, from Chinnor, Oxfordshire, went ahead with the doctor's devastating advice and now says she feels "lucky to be alive" after being given the all-clear.
The former assistant pub manager, who had an eight-hour operation to remove part of her small intestine and stomach, as well as her gallbladder – is now bravely sharing her story during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, to urge others to look out for symptoms.
Briony said: "After my diagnosis, my main fear was leaving the kids behind, and Archie not remembering me as he was still so young.
"When I was going through treatment, it was a case of getting my head down and getting on with it, but now I look back and wonder how I got through it. I want to do all I can to raise awareness and help other people."
Briony first suspected something was wrong when she began experiencing strange dizzy spells.
At first medics put it down to vertigo – a condition which makes people feel like everything around them is spinning.
However, things took a turn for the worse when she collapsed during a family holiday to Devon in May 2014, aged 22.
She was rushed to a local hospital when staff found her outside an amusement arcade having fainted.
“I couldn’t remember what had happened. It was like I woke up with no memory of having been asleep,” she said.
“At hospital, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, so told me to go to my GP when I was back home.”
Despite this, when Briony returned home from hospital her fainting spells continued.
This signalled the start of four long years of being bounced around various doctors, having various tests – none of which identified the cause of her symptoms.
I look back and wonder how I got through it. I want to do all I can to raise awareness and help other people
She said: “I kept fainting, but nobody knew what was wrong.
"It got so bad that I even had to teach Summer how to use the phone to call for help, in case I passed out while we were alone together.
“On several occasions, I was told the dizziness was down to my vegetarian diet making me anaemic.”
Months later, a blood test – one of many investigations, which included an MRI scan and a CT scan of her head, in case the problem was neurological – revealed that Briony's haemoglobin levels were very low.
And as a result of her deficiency, Briony needed 14 blood and 11 iron transfusions during that four year period.
“It was getting to the point where nobody knew what else to do with me,” she added.
However, things looked a little brighter when she met shop owner Jason Ray, 32, and fell pregnant with Archie, now two, in 2017.
During her pregnancy, which was closely monitored, she said she felt better than ever but, a few weeks after his birth, she was struck down by crippling stomach pains.
She said: "I went to the doctors who found that part of my placenta was still in the womb, which is a rare complication of childbirth, but can happen.
"They thought that had caused an infection, which would explain the pains, so I was given antibiotics.
"But the pain continued and, eventually, it got to the point where I could literally feel something in my stomach if I sat in a certain way.
"I also started to notice I was passing blood when I went to the toilet."
In late 2018, Briony fell pregnant again and, shortly after, had another fainting episode, which led to her having an endoscopy at Churchill Hospital, Oxford.
The procedure examines the inside of the body using a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end, inserted down the throat.
After four years of questions, this test finally provided some answers – although tragically, the news was the stuff of nightmares.
Briony said: “I got a call to go back to Churchill Hospital for an appointment at their cancer and haematology centre.
I couldn’t even think at first – it was too much to take in…If I kept our baby I could be leaving them without a mother
"At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I’d been for loads of appointments with haematologists, due to my blood, so figured it would be to do with that.
"But I remember it so clearly. A consultant came to get me, took me into a special side room and started to explain that he had been sent the images from my endoscopy and could see a mass.
"I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t about my blood, is it?’"
The specialist explained to Briony that, unsure exactly what the mass was at that stage, he was fairly certain it was cancer and would need to perform a biopsy to know for sure.
She continued: "I said to him, ‘This probably isn’t a good time to tell you this, but I’m actually pregnant.’
"The doctors said they wouldn’t tell me what to do, but that their medical advice was to terminate the pregnancy, so that I could have the biopsy and then start treatment right away, if I needed to.
"I couldn’t even think at first – it was too much to take in. Jason and I had a long talk and agreed that we had to think of Archie and Summer.
"If I kept our baby I could be leaving them without a mother."
After much soul-searching, Briony decided to terminate her pregnancy and a biopsy was performed a few days later.
When it was inconclusive, a further sample was taken and a week later, in late October 2018, she received a life-changing phone call.
"I’d said to the team who were looking after me all along that, although I know doctors don’t like to give news out over the phone, I wanted to hear the second they had the results," she said.
"The wait was causing too much anxiety. In the end, I got the call in the middle of the Co-op of all places," Briony continued.
"The nurse asked if it was a good time, but I didn’t want to wait any longer so I just said yes. Then she explained that I had a rare type of pancreatic cancer.
“I just went into autopilot, wandering around in a daze while she told me all about treatment and what would happen next.”
Briony’s official diagnosis was a gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) measuring 4cm and sitting on her duodenum – a part of the small intestine.
According to the charity Pancreatic Cancer Action, who she has been working closely with, she is just one of three people in the UK to have this particular form, and in the 0.13 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer affecting 25-29 year olds.
Medics also explained that there was an abscess sitting on top of her tumour, which had caused the initial biopsy to come back as inconclusive.
The abscess was bleeding, which explained Briony’s blood loss and need for transfusions.
“Doctors told me that my best chance of survival was to have Whipple surgery – an eight-and-a-half-hour operation to remove the head of my pancreas, part of my bile duct, part of my stomach, my gallbladder and duodenum,” she said.
What is a gastrointestinal stromal tumour?
A gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) is a type of soft tissue sarcoma that develops in the digestive tract.
The digestive tract is the hollow tube that runs from the gullet (oesophagus) to the anus (back passage).
Most GISTs begin in the stomach or small bowel, but they can develop anywhere along the digestive tract.
GISTs are rare cancers. Around 900 people in the UK are diagnosed with a GIST each year. We don't yet know what causes them.
Surgery to remove the cancer is usually the main treatment for GIST.
Research into treatments for GIST is ongoing and advances are being made.
The symptoms you have will depend on the size of your GIST and where it is in your digestive tract. Symptoms may include:
- Tummy discomfort or pain
- Blood in the stools or vomit
- Anaemia (low level of red blood cells)
- A painless lump in the abdomen
- Being sick (vomiting)
- Fatigue (tiredness and a feeling of weakness)
- A high temperature (fever) and sweating at night
- Weight loss
“It sounded like huge surgery with so many chances for complications. At the appointment, I barely even asked any questions as I was so in shock.
“But I wanted to do all I could to survive, so I agreed to go ahead. The next available date they had was in December, which they warned meant that my chances of being home for Christmas were slim.
“I thought I’d ruined everybody’s Christmas. I hadn’t even got the kids’ presents and really didn’t want to be away from them, but I had no choice.”
Unfortunately, Briony became so stressed at the thought of her upcoming operation that she ended up developing severe tonsillitis.
As a result, her surgery had to be delayed until she was better, as medics would not have been able to get tubes down her throat while it was infected.
A last-minute cancellation meant she was able to reschedule for December 12.
“I was in hospital for a week recovering,” she said.
“I hated being in there. I’d never spent a night away from the kids before, so felt awful leaving them, especially around Christmas.
"I couldn’t sleep as my anxiety was so bad. I was determined to get home, though, so was up and walking down the corridors just hours after coming round.”
Thankfully, discharged on 19 December, Briony made it home just in time for the festivities and, while she could not eat much of her Christmas dinner, or enjoy a glass of fizz, she was there to watch her kids open their presents.
She said: “It was really overwhelming to be back with the kids. The operation meant I’d been left with a drainage bag, which I tried to cover, but Summer saw it.
"I think it made her nervous to hug me in case she hurt me, so she was shy at first – but Archie went the other way and wouldn’t leave my side.
I thought I’d ruined everybody’s Christmas. I hadn’t even got the kids’ presents and really didn’t want to be away from them, but I had no choice
“Doctors warned I’d need to rest up at home for at least four weeks, but within three days, I was out doing my Christmas shopping with Jason.
"When you have kids, you can’t just sit there – you have to get up and get on with it.”
A follow-up test in January 2019 showed that the operation had been a success, while scans every three months since have confirmed that Briony remains cancer-free.
She is adjusting to having smaller meals because of her surgery, and must take daily tablets to replace the enzymes that her pancreas would have produced.
But, overall, she is grateful to have survived and has now vowed to share her story to help others.
With the support of Pancreatic Cancer Action, she is hoping to show that pancreatic cancer can affect anyone of any age, and wants to raise awareness of symptoms such as stomach pain, unexpected weight loss, anaemia and changes in bowel movements.
She said: “I want to say to everybody out there that you know your own body, so if you think something is wrong, then persist with doctors.
"Pancreatic cancer is so difficult as the symptoms can be so many other things, but it’s important to be aware of any changes in your body.
“I am still taking in everything that’s happened over this past year, but I feel so lucky to be alive and can’t wait to spend Christmas this year with my family.
"We haven’t decided our plans quite yet, but it will be a day with all the people I love the most.”
For information, visit Pancreatic Cancer Action here.
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