Real Life

Young mum’s shock ‘My unborn baby saved my life’

Abi hopes battling chemo and morning sickness will all be worth it

First-time mum Abi Johnston was overwhelmed with joy at her 20-week scan to learn she was expecting a daughter.

But just six weeks later, it would be a very different story when an ultrasound revealed suspicious lumps, followed by a shock diagnosis of stage three triple positive breast cancer.

Instead of excitedly preparing for life as a mum, the 27-year-old radiographer is now undergoing chemotherapy during her third trimester and will continue treatment just days after giving birth.

“The excitement of our baby coming and thinking about the cuddles is definitely helping us get through,” says Abi, who initially assumed the unexpected changes to her breasts were related to pregnancy.

“It just felt like thickened tissue to begin with. It was a bit strange, but I googled ‘pregnancy changes’ and thought it could be a cyst or a blocked milk duct.”

Sharing her story with the Weekly ahead of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ’s Pink Ribbon Breakfast on May 25, Abi encourages others not to waste any time if they notice any variations.

“I was embarrassed to go to the doctor, thinking if it’s nothing and just pregnancy-related, I’m wasting their time,” recalls Abi, who self-monitored for several weeks before seeing her GP. “I was also scared in case it was something serious.”

From there, things moved quickly. Within a fortnight, an urgent ultrasound and a biopsy were done, and a diagnosis delivered – stage three breast cancer.

“It was a real shock to me, my husband, my whole family – especially with no history at all and being so young,” shares Abi.

“A lot of thoughts go through your head and our little girl was one of the main ones, wanting to know how they can treat this and keep her safe?”

Medical professionals quickly rallied around Abi and husband Broc, 28, a support worker for people with traumatic brain injuries, to find the best treatment options that posed the lowest risk to their unborn baby.

The newlyweds always saw children in their future, but cancer has changed Abi and Broc’s parenthood journey dramatically.

“They decided they wanted to start with chemotherapy rather than surgery, which took me by surprise and took a lot to get my head around,” admits Abi, explaining the chemotherapy will kill any undetected cancer cells that have travelled outside of her breast.

So, just four days after being diagnosed, Abi went in for her first of four chemo treatments planned during her pregnancy.

“I’ve been extremely fatigued and a bit nauseous, but we’ve had so much support from friends and work colleagues making us meals, which has been amazing and taken the everyday stress out of life so that I can rest,” tells Abi, who is now 35 weeks pregnant and due for her last session of pregnancy chemo this week.

“When I do have energy, I can do something that’s nourishing to the soul rather than having to cook a meal.”

The plan is to resume weekly treatments for 12 weeks just days after giving birth, followed by surgery, then five to 10 years of hormone medication.

“A lot of what I expected as a mum is going to look very different,” reflects Abi. “I can’t breastfeed and Broc is going to need to take time off work for those first months to help look after baby a lot more than we thought.

“I’ve definitely been struggling in terms of readjusting my expectations of what I can or can’t do as a mother, but I know I’ll still be able to be there, love her and do lots.”

Even on the hardest days, Abi is incredibly grateful for this pregnancy.

“Before she’s even started this side of life, we’ve been through so much together,” says Abi, smiling. “She’s such a strong girl and she’s helped me to be stronger through everything too.

“I love it when she kicks and actually just all-round. I’ve loved being pregnant and I hope, one day, I get to do it again.”

There’s a long road ahead yet and giving Abi the best chance of survival also comes at a significant cost.

Pertuzumab by Perjeta, one of the unsubsidised medications for after their baby is born, costs around $20,000. But the Whangārei couple, who met through church and married in 2020, have been humbled by the support of many who have donated to help cover costs.

And they’re both optimistic it will all be worth it to continue the life they’ve always dreamed of together.

“The doctor is very positive that we’re going for cure rather than life-lengthening, so we really hope our daughter gets to experience life growing up with me around,” enthuses Abi.

To help support Abi and her family, visit givealittle.co.nz and search “Abi and Broc”. To donate or host your own pink ribbon breakfast to support breast cancer, visit pinkribbonbreakfast.co.nz

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