Mum diagnosed with rare cancer while pregnant

Olivia O’Leary with her baby Axel. Photo: Louise KennerleyOlivia O’Leary​ anticipated spending the last few months of her pregnancy preparing the nursery, shopping for baby clothes and thinking about names for her newborn.

The last thing she was expecting was a cancer diagnosis.

Life had suddenly taken a very different an unexpected turn.

So when the 33-year-old first time mum-to-be was told a persistent pain in her mouth was a cancer normally found in older men who drink heavily and smoke, it came as an “unexpected and frightening shock”.

“When I first heard the words cancer, things started to move quickly and get serious,” she said. “Life had suddenly taken a very different and unexpected turn.”

The marketing executive from Thirroul was 27 weeks pregnant at the time she was diagnosed with a squamous cell carcinoma on her tongue, requiring complex surgery and follow up treatment.

She was induced 33 weeks into the pregnancy, welcoming baby Axel into the world via emergency caesareanat Wollongong Hospital on September 7 in what she describes as “the most marvellous day”.

Three days later, she underwent surgery to remove the tumour and replace it with a skin graft from her shoulder blade. As a precaution, lymph nodes were also removed from her neck.

As she recovered from the eight-hour operation in Wollongong Hospital’s intensive care unit, her husband Sean would bring Axel over from the nursery so she could breastfeed him.

She and Axel were discharged on the same day, ready to start life as a new family.

“Our first night at home was wonderful,” she said. “It was nice to know that we could now be parents .. . except that we couldn’t.”

In what she describes as a “cruel twist” the skin flap had failed to attach to her tongue so she was soon backinhospital for a second operation, this time using skin from her left forearm.

While that operation was a success, another challenge lay ahead when doctors discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, requiring radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“It was pretty devastating news, but my philosophy from the beginning was to hit it hard to improve my overall chances of living a long cancer-free life, so it was inevitable that I’d go that way with my treatment once we learnt it had spread,” she said.

At that point she was referred to the Chris O’Brien LifeHouse​, the integrated treatment centre established according to the vision of renowned surgeon Chris O’Brien​ who died from brain cancer in 2009.

She finished six weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in early December, with medical oncologist Professor Michael Boyer​ commending her positive attitude.

“Having a baby is avery emotional time even when you don’t have anything else to deal with,” he said. “You throw a cancer diagnosis into the mix and that is pretty challenging. She has taken it in her stride and done everything she needs to for herself and her family.”

Olivia credits the support of her husband, extended family and baby Axel for helping her through the emotional rollercoaster.

“On the good days, it’s the biggest blessing to have a beautiful baby boy to distract me from what’s going on and when I’m really low, there’s always a reason to keep on going,” she said.

“By Christmas, I’ll hopefully be starting to feel like myself again and can concentrate on just being a good mum.”

Illawarra Mercury

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