Real Life

A mother’s courage ‘I beat bowel cancer to have a baby’

Never giving up on her family dream, Rachael was delighted to discover the sweetest surprise after chemo

Early childhood education teacher Rachael Ferguson was in the prime of her life, recently married and excited to start a family when prenatal testing led to a terrifying diagnosis – stage four bowel cancer.

“Back then, I had no idea bowel cancer was a possibility. I was only 32 and it was just not on my radar at all,” says Rachael, now 34, who like so many believed she was too young for the aggressive disease.

Extremely low iron stores, picked up in the prenatal blood tests, and the occasional spots of fresh blood in her stools were the first warning signs for Rachael, who was sent for a flexible sigmoidoscopy examination to be cautious.

“I went on my own and opted to be awake for the procedure because I wanted to drive home after and get on with my life,” recalls Rachael, who was shocked to learn she had a large cancerous tumour. Doctors estimated it had been growing for 18 months.

“It was frightening,” recalls Rachael. “I lost it, had a really big cry, then looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Okay, that’s it, you need to pull it together and it is going to be okay.’ You don’t have much control, so finding something that I could control, which was my emotions, helped keep me going.”

A tumour was found on Rachael’s bowel and liver.

A major but successful surgery to remove the tumour from her bowel and a second smaller one on her liver came next, followed by six months of chemotherapy.

Trying for a baby was put on pause while Rachael underwent the gruelling treatment, but she never gave up on her family dream.

“The whole way through, I clutched on to my goal of becoming a mum,” shares Rachael. “We were told to wait six months to ideally two years after chemo before trying to conceive. But my husband is 42 and I’ll be 35 this year, so time was not on my side.”

She always wanted babies with Glen.

Then unexpectedly, Rachael fell pregnant just six weeks after she finished chemotherapy.

“I was born to be a mum, so I was a mixture of extremely excited and also worrying if we were able to go through with the pregnancy.”

Despite her concerns, Rachael loved being pregnant and on September 13, 2022 at 3.17am, her son George was born, weighing a healthy 3.9kg (8lbs 1oz).

“I was just so relieved. Hearing his cry, I felt like I let out this huge deep breath I had been holding on to for so long,” says Rachael, who appreciates the unwavering support of her husband Glen. “He watched the whole birth and was very emotional.”

She had a straightforward pregnancy.

Like all new mothers, there has been plenty to learn and overcome, but Rachael takes it all in her stride.

“Going through what I did, a lot of what I thought was important, really isn’t. I’ve really had to let go, stop rushing and slow down, because all we have guaranteed is today and this moment,” says Rachel, who hopes to pass down this easy-going attitude to her son.

“George rolled from back to front yesterday for the first time. We’ll never have that first moment again. Everything is just so precious and so special.”

Although, she’s quick to admit life hasn’t always been this way.

“I was go, go, go all the time, constantly rushing and always complaining about things,” tells Rachael, adding cancer and motherhood have taught her to really listen to her body.

“It’s been this huge lesson to stop treating my body like a toy. I used to do body building and thrash myself at the gym because I thought that showed true strength. But actually, if I can rest and look after myself, that’s strength too. I don’t want to make it sound simple – it hasn’t been easy at all for me to get to this point – but it’s worth the hard work.”

In the background, four-month-old George is peacefully sleeping as Rachael tells the Weekly she’s eternally grateful her cancer was detected in time.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with more than 3000 people diagnosed each year and over 1200 dying from the disease. A nationwide screening programme is available for Kiwis aged 60-74, but Rachael knows first-hand that youth is not a safety net.

She warns, “Statistics for younger people are on the incline. It’s so important to take symptoms seriously. Having a sore tummy, being constipated, bloated or being extremely tired may seem like nothing, but they can be very real symptoms, and it’s always worth seeing your doctor and advocating for your health.”

To find out more about bowel cancer and its symptoms, visit bowelcancernz.org.nz

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