Body & Fitness

Kiwi woman’s shock cancer diagnosis and the experimental surgery that made her motherhood dream come true

''If it wasn’t for my cervical smear, I would be dead or definitely wouldn’t have my children. This cancer isn’t just an older women’s disease.''

When little Isla Perry McBurney was finally carried into her Invercargill home, her doting parents couldn’t have scripted a more perfect end to a harrowing decade.

Just 10 years earlier, mum Sarah was given a shock cancer diagnosis that came perilously close to dashing any hopes she had of motherhood.

Now, after years of failed IVF treatment, the seemingly impossible had happened – a child conceived naturally, despite Sarah not having a cervix.

“The day we took our baby home was exactly 10 years to the day I was diagnosed,” tells Sarah, who bravely battled a rare and aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix at just 25.

“I always said to my husband, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something awesome happened on my 10th anniversary?’ and that turned out to be having Isla!”

Sarah gave birth to daughter Isla at just 34 weeks.

Sarah, 42, who is sharing her remarkable story to highlight vaginal health, says if it wasn’t for having a routine cervical smear, she might not be alive today.

Not aware anything was amiss but experiencing extensive bleeding between periods, Sarah describes the day her life became a nightmare rollercoaster ride she couldn’t get off.

“I went for a smear but was asked if I wanted a medical certificate because it came back abnormal. I thought that was a bit dramatic. They basically told me they were concerned that I had cancer.”

After a private gynaecologist performed a colposcopy, Sarah was diagnosed with the deadly disease, and her oncologist dropped a bombshell – she would need a hysterectomy.

“That was devastating. It means you are never going to have a child. This was not part of my plan.” However, there was a glimmer of hope when her oncologist suggested experimental surgery, a trachelectomy, where the cervix and part of the birth canal are removed, then the uterus is stapled to the vagina.

Recalls Sarah, “All I heard was ‘keep uterus’ and thought, ‘I’m giving it a go!'”

It wasn’t until she was wheeled out of theatre that she discovered they had managed to save her womb. “I just felt very grateful that there was that option, but at the same time, I had no idea about the journey I was in for,” Sarah tells.

Sarah spent months of her pregnancy with Isla in hospital on bed rest.

The years that followed were filled with physical pain from side effects of the operation, plus IVF heartache as Sarah and husband Glenn, 44, tried repeatedly to have a child until there were no more embryos left to implant.

“I had been looking for my period or not looking for my period every month for over nine years. I couldn’t process what we were going to do to fill the void of not being able to have a family.”

Then a miraculous thing happened, with Sarah falling pregnant naturally, leaving everyone – including her astonished oncologist – overjoyed at the news.

She recalls the special moment she showed her stunned husband the positive pregnancy test in February of 2011. “He looked at me, read it and we both burst into tears. We couldn’t believe it!”

After a shortened pregnancy that involved months of bed rest, a miscarriage scare and no sex, little Isla Perry – who turned seven this year – was born at just 34 weeks.

“I remember hearing her first cry,” recalls Sarah, her voice wobbly. “They were reassuring me that everything was fine. When she was put in my arms, I couldn’t stop looking at her. I was in disbelief that that child was in my stomach and now I was holding her.”

Sarah has further health problems after the birth of second daughter Elsie in 2015.

Then, against all odds, Sarah became pregnant a second time in 2015.

This time, the placenta had attached to scar tissue and was growing deep into the uterine muscle.

After Elsie – who is now two – was born, the medical complications continued. Sarah suffered life-threatening seizures and ongoing gynaecological health issues, including a fear of sex.

In spite of this, her family dream – so close to being dashed – means she cherishes every moment with her precious girls. “You won’t often hear me moan about my kids. I tell them I’m the luckiest mummy in the world.”

Sarah is now a determined advocate for the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation and is keen to raise awareness about the need for regular check-ups.

“If it wasn’t for my cervical smear, I would be dead or definitely wouldn’t have my children. This cancer isn’t just an older women’s disease.

“I used to look at my cancer and be so angry at it. But cancer has made me a better person because of what I have gone through – and I’ve come out the other side.”

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