Blood cancer while pregnant amid a global pandemic: One mum’s courageous fight for survival

She was tempted to give up but fought for the sake of her kids. A mum shares how she beat cancer while pregnant with a, now healthy, wee girl amid a global pandemic. Emma Russell reports.

When Zuska Phillips’ water broke unexpectedly 10 minutes before the 2021 countdown it felt like the final straw.

She was pregnant with her fourth child while undergoing draining chemotherapy to treat a life-threatening cancer amid a global pandemic.

“I thought I was going to die … there were so many times I wanted to give up but I knew I had to keep going for the sake of my kids,” Phillips’ told the Weekend Herald.

Her story is far from ordinary.

Weeks after discovering she was pregnant, the North Shore mum knew something was wrong.

She started experiencing nose bleeds, bruising under her breasts and chronic fatigue.

The 36-year-old carer said her midwife and GP put it down to her being older while pregnant.

“It got to the point where I’d literally come home from work and I’d go straight to bed, I was so tired. It just seemed really odd to me,” she said.

She’d lost 5kg months after finding out she was pregnant, Phillips said.

Then, she developed shortness of breath and a persistent cough. Her GP ran bloods but they came back clear, she said.

“Within two days, I couldn’t even catch my breath between coughs, it got so bad. When I rang my doctor he said go straight to the hospital.”

That was just after Auckland came out of its August last year lockdown.

Hospital staff suspected she was infected with Covid so she was put in an isolated ward while doctors assessed her in full PPE, she said.

After six months of experiencing symptoms, Phillips was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

An x-ray showed five masses in her chest. Full scans couldn’t be performed because of increased dangers in pregnancy, so it was unclear how far the cancer had spread. Surgery was not an option as the cancer was through her blood.

She was 24 weeks’ pregnant by that point.

Cancer Society medical director and oncologist Kate Gregory said she would see about 200 cancer patients a year and about one every second year would be pregnant.

“It is a terrible scenario to diagnosis of cancer and being pregnant at the same time. The really positive message from this story is pregnant people can still get treatment for cancer and it can still be really successful.”

All the babies that had been born from patients who had been treated had been absolutely fine and there had been no issues with delivery, she said.

Phillips said her cancer was aggressive and doctors needed to move quickly with treatment.

“I was too far along my pregnancy to terminate and it was too urgent to delay treatment until after my baby was born,” Phillips said.

“The masses had wrapped themselves around my vocal cords which is why I was short of breath. Every time I lifted by arms up it would stop the blood flow from my heart so I would literally go bright red and not be able to breath. [Doctors] said if we leave it, I would stop breathing.”

After consulting with doctors in America, as there hadn’t been many cases of pregnant woman battling this particular type of cancer in New Zealand, she agreed to six rounds of a new type of chemotherapy.

Instead of going into hospital, she had a pump attached to her feeding the drug into her veins for five days straight, every three weeks.

“It was horrendous, I was non-stop vomiting … and the tiredness was horrible. I couldn’t even walk, I had to be assisted to get off the bed … my kids had to take me to the toilet which was hard because in my job I am the one doing the caring.”

Then, just minutes after she sent her husband off to enjoy New Year’s Eve her waters broke. It was 10 minutes before the countdown and five days before the baby’s expected due date.

“It felt like the final straw,” she said.

Despite all odds being against her, including the hospital being short-staffed over the holiday, she gave birth naturally to baby Skylah who weighed five pounds “healthy as Larry”.

But her battle wasn’t over, in fact the worse was yet to come. She then endured her worst and last two rounds of chemo.

“Mentally, I lost the plot … I was lashing out at my family and became resentful of my baby. I just wanted to give up.”

She said her kids – aged 16, 15 and 12 – took it in their stride and had to grow up really quickly.

“My oldest son wrote me a letter saying he knew I could get through it.”

Her son was right. Just a few months after giving birth she had a call to say she was not only in the clear but there were no traces of any cancer left in her body, which she said was a shock even to the doctors.

Fighting cancer while pregnant changed her in ways she never expected.

“I used to have every minute scheduled, my life was busy with kids and work, and now I am much more present. I like to enjoy every moment. I’m much more chill.”

She is now participating in Cancer Society’s Walking Stars annual event on November 13 to help raise awareness of the disease that almost killed her.

Phillips’ message to others is: “Trust your instincts. If I hadn’t pushed – I just knew it wasn’t a cough, it wasn’t a virus.”

She counts her blessings everyday that she gets to watch her “confident and cute” baby girl grow up.


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