Body & Fitness

New mum’s horror ‘My placenta gave me cancer’

Just weeks after giving birth, a rare condition left Jess fighting for her life
Sarah Marshall

In October 2022, Whāngarei mother Jess Smith was overjoyed to welcome her much-longed-for baby daughter Kaiya.

Excited to spend maternity leave bonding with her newborn, it was supposed to be one of the happiest times of her life.

But just weeks after giving birth, the beauty therapist was plagued by a constant cough and chest pain that made it hard to breastfeed Kaiya, and almost impossible to run around after her two-year-old son Myles.

“It was like a cold that just wouldn’t go away, but I thought it would eventually get better,” shares Jess, who sought medical attention at six weeks postpartum.

Doctors initially believed it was a pulmonary embolism – when a clot blocks the flow of blood through the lungs – as an x-ray showed shadows on her lungs.

Relieved to know what was wrong, she was sent home with medication and expected to make a full recovery.

“I was taking medicine that should have been making me better, but as time went on, I was getting worse,” recalls Jess, who ended up back in hospital looking for answers in early January 2023.

“I couldn’t walk two metres without collapsing and could hardly breathe at all. The pain was so unbearable, I would have rather given birth again.”

Medical professionals were stumped by her deteriorating condition. Then a test unexpectedly showed Jess was pregnant again, but during the ultrasound they could find no sign of a baby.

Jess is making up for lost time with Myles and baby Kaiya.

“My HCG levels [a hormone made by the placenta when pregnant] were really high – like 675,000 and a normal level is five – but there was no baby on the scan and all these cysts had spread in my uterus,” tells Jess, adding a follow up x-ray showed the shadowing in her lungs had also expanded.

The following day, Jess was shocked to be diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer that affects one in 50,000 women after pregnancy.

“Basically, cells leftover from my placenta turned cancerous and multiplied through my body,” she explains. “I had a brilliant midwife. After giving birth, she showed me my placenta and checked it over. There’s no way anyone could have known there were cells still inside me.”

Telling her partner of nine years, Tyson Malcolm, is still one of the hardest things Jess has ever done.

“He was pretty cut up about it and I’ve never seen him react like that or be so emotional.”

Still struggling to accept the diagnosis, the Northland couple had to quickly adapt and make plans as Jess was scheduled to be transferred to Auckland almost immediately for specialist care.

“It was really hard going into the unknown alone, but I thought maybe I would see my kids and Tyson again the next day.”

Instead, Jess, who also has an 11-year-old daughter Ava, who lives with family, spent the next four and a half months living alone in Auckland undergoing nine rounds of chemotherapy.

Baby Kaiya was just 11 weeks old at the time, so Tyson stepped away from his job as an arborist to care for their children full-time back in Whāngarei.

Tyson gave up his job to care for the family.

The kids weren’t allowed to be around Jess during treatments, for safety reasons, so their time together was limited to occasional days in the weekend.

“I didn’t see them for about three weeks when I arrived,” remembers Jess, who will always be grateful for the commitment Tyson made to their family in her absence. “It was the longest time ever. Every time I saw my daughter, something was different. It really showed me what kind of person Tyson is and showed real strength being able to look after our two children. He and Myles are inseparable and he loves our daughter so much. I could see how strong their connection was and wanted that for myself too.”

Back home and overjoyed to be cancer-free, Jess shares her story in the hope other mothers will be more vigilant with their health postpartum.

Jess says after pregnancy, her body was in a state of flux and she assumed her symptoms would go away as she recovered from giving birth.

“Listen to your body,” she advises. “I probably left it too long, but it’s so important to be proactive with your symptoms, especially after birth.”

Cuddles with Jess’ oldest girl Ava.

Looking to the future, Jess is considering starting her own beauty therapy business, but for now she is focused on catching up on lost time with her loved ones.

“It’s nice to be surrounded by the people I need,” she says. “The best moments are the mornings when my son comes running towards me for a hug and a kiss, or when I wake my daughter up and see her cute little face.”

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