Body & Fitness

Meet the inspiring Kiwi mum who battled bowel cancer while pregnant

Portia France credits her twin babies for pulling her through a harrowing cancer scare. Deservedly so, she's won the title of Woman's Day and Vivo's Most inspiring mum.

Hugging her boisterous bubs, new mum Portia France gives little hint of a harrowing cancer scare that overshadowed her pregnancy and saw her undergo a major operation before her darling twins were even born.

In fact, the Auckland mum of Harrison and Matisse – now eight months old and motoring around on all fours – is counting her blessings, saying if it wasn’t for motherhood, a potentially deadly bowel disease may have continued growing unnoticed until it was too late.

It’s only been weeks since her latest surgery and scars on her body are still healing, but the primary school teacher, who has gone through so much in the past year, is searching for words when she talks about being named the winner of the Woman’s Day and Vivo Most Inspiring Mum competition.

The power of mums! Portia with Lyn (left) and mother Teremoana Bennett and her twins, Harrison and Matisse.

“I feel like I don’t deserve it,” she says. “I’m just a mum doing her best. I never thought I was an inspiring mum. All mums are inspiring and I have great role models – both family and friends – who do what they can for their kids. I feel very privileged.”

But for mother-in-law Lyn France, 65, who has watched Portia fighting for her life, winning the title is well deserved. “I’ve never seen her sad,” says Lyn. “Portia just gets on well with everything. You just look at her looking at the babies and there’s so much love, and the babies love her. She’s inspirational!”

But Portia, 40, insists, “I’ve only been able to do it because of the love and support I’ve got from family and friends. People cooking, cleaning my house, looking after the babies and looking after me.”

A week before giving birth.

The past year has been a rollercoaster for the Te Atatu mum, who is married to journalist Marvin, 35. After discovering she was pregnant in January 2018, and sailing through the first trimester, Portia recalls the initial golden glow of pregnancy quickly faded as she struggled to keep anything down.

Repeated trips to the hospital in late March saw her violent illness dismissed as morning sickness, until one doctor noted an unusual lack of bowel movements.

“They did an MRI scan and that’s when they found the tumour,” recalls Portia. “I had emergency surgery on the same day. They didn’t think it was bowel cancer because I was so young and I didn’t have the typical symptoms.”

Finally able to breastfeed, three days after their birth.

With her belly swelling as the fraternal twins grew, Portia was given a stoma – an artificial opening to her colon – in the side of her stomach.

Despite the harrowing ordeal her body had gone through, the babies arrived by Caesarean at 38 weeks on August 27, without any drama.

“They were fine,” says a relieved Portia. “The pregnancy throughout was not an issue and their growth was on track. I just had the side issue of bowel cancer. I was positive and always thought, ‘We can get through this.’ Knowing the kids were fine helped.”

Lyn, a devoted reader of Woman’s Day, tells us she’s in awe of how the brave mum-to-be handled the situation.

“As a result of her operation, she had to have a stoma put in, which has been very uncomfortable, but I have never once heard her complain,” Lyn wrote in her compelling nomination.

“She had an unknown future until the birth of the babies, when she could have scans and X-rays to find out what was happening with the cancer. Throughout all this, Portia kept up a positive view on life.”

The cancer has been determined as “sporadic” and not hereditary, and Portia says CAT scans and a colonoscopy have since come back clear, but she will continue to have annual checks, adding that surgeons were confident at the time they had cut it all out.

After her most recent operation, to reconnect her colon, Portia is still smiling, even though doing basic tasks for her active tots remains difficult.

“I can’t lift the babies, which is so hard,” Portia tells. “They come crawling up to you, wanting a cuddle from their mum, so I’ve had someone with me every day to help manage them.”

But while recovery is slow, Portia knows starting a family was the best decision she has ever made – and probably saved her life.

“I’m lucky it was found early,” she concludes. “I’m lucky I didn’t need chemo, I’m lucky I’ve got a great medical team and I’m lucky I’ve got great people around me. Being positive, knowing that it was going to be alright, got me through it.”

The letter that won her the title

Mother-in-law Lyn wrote us this moving letter (below).

Dear Woman’s Day,

I would like to nominate my amazing daughter-in-law Portia France as my most inspiring mum.

In her early stages of pregnancy, it was discovered that she had bowel cancer. She had to undergo an emergency operation to cut out the cancer. Of course, she couldn’t undergo chemo or have scans because of the damage it would do to the babies – yes, she was having twins!

As a result of her operation, she has had to have a stoma put in, which has been very uncomfortable, but I have never once heard her complain. Portia had an unknown future until the birth of the babies, when she could have scans and X-rays to find out what was happening with the cancer. Throughout all this, she kept up a positive view on life. Now she is the proud mother of a boy and girl, and it is so lovely to see the joy on her face with her babies.

Portia goes into hospital soon to have her bowel reattached, and must have six weeks of no lifting, washing and cooking, to recuperate from the operation. Because of this, she is training the twins to drink from a bottle and to eat solids because she will struggle to be able to continue to breastfeed them straight after the operation. She is cooking and freezing food for the babies because she doesn’t want to make extra work for the whanau. This is a reflection of how she is always thinking of others at a time when most people would only be thinking of themselves.

To me, Portia is an inspirational mother in that she always has a smile on her face and the love of the twins twinkling in her eyes.

Lyn France

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