IT is almost too harrowing, too heartbreaking to think about. A new mum diagnosed with cancer.
Viewers are gripped by the story-line in Coronation Street after Sinead Tinker, played by Katie McGlynn, was diagnosed with cervical cancer while pregnant.
For Shona Brown, the drama echoes her own life after doctors told her she had breast cancer when daughter Mara was eight months old.
“It was the most horrendous thing that could happen,” she said.
“I was a new mum dealing with all the complications that brings, like juggling work with sleepless nights and the demands of the baby and doctors were telling me I had cancer. I just kept saying, ‘I’m a mum. This shouldn’t be happening to me’.”
From welcoming a new life to contemplating the loss of her own was a terrifying prospect for Shona, 34.
Her diagnosis came after she discovered a lump in February 2017.
“That was a sleepless night,” she said. “It was such a shock because it was a definite lump. As soon as I found it I started Googling.
“That was the worst thing to do because it put me in a panic. It said there was an increased risk of breast cancer after having a baby.”
Shona quickly arranged a GP appointment and was relieved when the doctor – who had worked in a breast clinic – said he was 99.9% sure the lump wasn’t cancerous. He referred her to the breast clinic, though, just to have it checked out.
The consultant there also said she was pretty sure it wasn’t anything sinister.
“I was completely relieved to hear that,” she said.
“It put my mind at rest. She said she would take a closer look with an ultrasound.
“We were laughing and joking, but within seconds, the mood changed. As soon as she put the scanner on my breast and looked at the screen, she said we would need further tests.
“That’s when it hit me – the fact that life would never be the same again. I kept thinking, ‘I have a baby. This isn’t possible.’”
A few days later, Shona, from Glasgow, returned for a mammogram and biopsy results. Her worst fears were confirmed. It was cancer.
“The shock was unreal,” Shona said. “There was no history in my family so I had never checked myself, I’d never heard of lymph nodes and didn’t think women my age got cancer. That’s how naïve I was.
“I couldn’t even contemplate how I was going to cope.”
But for Shona and husband Andy, there was no time to think about it. It was straight on to a treatment plan.
“One thing that was very surprising was the amount of decisions I was asked to make, from the type of surgery I would have to whether to do chemo or surgery first,” Shona said. “I just wanted someone to decide for me.”
Shona settled on surgery first to remove the lump and surrounding lymph nodes, as well as a breast reduction to even up both sides. “The surgery part was easy, the recovery much more difficult to bear. I couldn’t lift my daughter so my husband had to take time off work to look after her.
“And then there were complications. There was a lack of blood supply, seromas, which is a build-up of fluid… I had to have three further surgeries. And there was a race for everything to heal properly before chemo could start.
“And that came with its own problems. Every time I had a session, it looked like there might be an infection.
“It was a hard time. I lost my hair, I was dead on my feet, like a zombie.
“Then I got sepsis and a blood clot in my heart and had just a 50% chance of survival. But the hardest part was having the time I should have spent being a mum taken away from me.
“I have a huge feeling of guilt, even though it wasn’t my fault.
“I didn’t get the chance to form a bond with Mara, because her dad had to do the majority of looking after her.
“I would look at other mums and their babies at groups and realise Mara and I didn’t have the same relationship.
“And when it’s all three of us, she always wants her dad. It’s actually embarrassing out in public because I just feel so hurt and sad.
“But it does give me piece of mind that when I’m not there she is 100% happy with her dad. Andy is an amazing dad and I am delighted Mara has that bond with someone, but I wish it was me.”
Almost a year on from her diagnosis, Shona, a musician, is recovering – but feeling a lot better.
She was helped by Mummy’s Star – the only charity in the UK dedicated to helping mums diagnosed with cancer in pregnancy, or in the 12 months after birth. It’s the same charity that advised Corrie’s scriptwriters and actors before they filmed the emotive storyline.
She said: “My hair is growing back, my energy levels are up and I’m getting my strength back. It’s a slow process but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Thankfully my cancer was relatively early stage so the future is hopeful for me.”
And now that things are looking up, Shona has a few decisions to make.
Genetic tests showed she carries the BRCA gene, meaning she’s at high risk of further breast or ovarian cancer.
It’s the same faulty gene that led actress Angelina Jolie to have a preventative double mastectomy and have her ovaries removed.
“That surgery is something I need to consider – but I’m still holding out hope of another child,” said Shona. “I might not get that chance if chemo has damaged my ovaries, but I don’t know if that’s the case. I did want to freeze my eggs, but because I already have a child, I was denied that opportunity.
“But with any luck, we can think about another child before I have to make a decision.
“The first year of being a new mum certainly hasn’t been easy, but I’m looking forward to making up for lost time now with Mara.
“In a way, I’m fortunate it happened when she was young and won’t remember. And I took comfort from writing letters to Mara as a way to connect with her.
“I hope one day she will read them and know that I did everything I could to be there for her.
“But it was devastating not being able to hold her. As a mum, this was a nightmare come true.”
Mummy’s Star was started by Pete Wallroth. The father of three lost his wife, Mair, to cancer in pregnancy in 2012.
Mair was diagnosed with breast cancer 22 weeks into her second pregnancy. When she passed away, she was only 41. Merlin was only two months old and daughter Martha just three.
The ordeal inspired Pete to launch a charity dedicated to other cancer-stricken mothers-to-be.
Actors Katie McGlynn and Rob Mallard – who play Sinead and Daniel in Corrie – were so inspired by the charity that they recently became patrons.