Just when journalist Elle Halliwell should have been celebrating the joyous news she was pregnant with her first child, instead the then 30-year-old was facing the news she had been diagnosed with leukemia and would have to choose between saving her own life – or her unborn child’s.
In April 2016, Elle was diagnosed with an incurable cancer called Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia. Understandably, Elle was in shock – but then, 48 hours later, she discovered that she was pregnant with her first baby. Doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy and begin cancer treatment immediately. Elle and her husband Nick were faced with an awful and cruel dilemma – to save Elle’s life, they should sacrifice their unborn child. The decision they made is both inspiring and heartbreaking.
This brave mother-to-be chose to keep her baby, what she later comes to understand as ‘a mother’s choice’. In her memoir of the same name, Elle details her illness, her pregnancy, and against all the odds, the ultimate triumph of giving birth to her son, Tor. Now on the road to recovery, Elle has discovered a new passion for nutrition and a life free from anxiety and despite the physical and emotional pain, she’s more determined than ever to live well and enjoy life to the full. A Mother’s Choice is in equal parts moving, compelling and inspiring.
We sat down with Elle to find out more…
Your illness was discovered during routine tests. Where were you when you were told of your diagnosis?
I was at work when I got the call to come in for an appointment and “bring a loved one”. That was enough to know something was seriously wrong. Our GP came over that night and told us exactly what they had found. It was better finding out at home a few days before the official appointment as we had time to collect our emotions and prepare questions to the haematologist.
What went through your mind?
Everything and nothing at the same time. It was hard to follow my thoughts, as emotionally my mind was trying to shut down due to shock so I couldn’t really process anything sensical. I did see images though, of myself wasting away in hospital, which was very scary. That image is forever imprinted in my mind.
Had you experienced any signs at all that something might be amiss before the news?
Not really. In hindsight I guess some fatigue and recurring colds and throat infections could have been signs, but I put that down to stress and my battle with chronic anxiety. I was told the illness had been discovered quite early so it wouldn’t have been unusual for me not to have exhibited any obvious symptoms, which is why the diagnosis was such a shock! There was no bruising, no bone pain to alert me there was something amiss.
You then had good and bad news to share with family – your illness and as well, your pregnancy. How did they handle it?
They were devastated – everybody’s first thoughts were that the idea of keeping the baby was ludicrous, especially before we learned more about my illness and spoke to specialists. But I think they saw our determination once we had made our choice and from that point, supported us wholeheartedly.
As you navigated your pregnancy, did you find yourself talking to Tor and bonding with him?
All the time. It was what kept me going. I felt that my illness and my pregnancy were fated, that this little fighter inside me had a reason for being on Earth and I had a purpose to stay alive and get through this time. It was this feeling that gave me strength and determination.
Over the nine months, there must have been good and bad moments…
The high point was the overwhelming love I felt, both for my baby, and the love I was receiving from other people. It’s something I’d never experienced before and can’t really put it into words properly. I just felt more connected to people. The worst moment was having to tell my mum I had cancer. It broke my heart.
You then delivered Tor and held your baby at last. What was the experience of birth like for you?
It was blessedly unremarkable in a sense. Remarkable that I was giving birth to a tiny human, of course, but also a very standard process like any other first time Mum would experience, which I was really happy about. I was induced a month early and thankfully the whole process went fairly smoothly, and he came out healthy and happy. I really tried to celebrate those days before and after the birth, because I was so relieved I had gotten to that point.
When you finally met Tor, what was the overwhelming emotion?
It was very much relief and a sense that we had known each other for a lifetime already. We’d both worked so hard to get to that point, so it was a joyous feeling.
Now, you have your son at last. How close is motherhood to what you had imagined?
It’s harder than I imagined, emotionally. Dealing with an illness as well wasn’t something I’d ever considered when I thought about being a first time mum, but I don’t know any different and I think that’s a good thing, as there’s no comparison, no wishing for a simpler situation. I never really thought I could love as greatly as I do now, and with that comes fear, so it’s a constant rollercoaster of emotion!
With the immediate experience behind you, what does the future look like for your health and family?
It’s looking really good! My body is responding to the treatment and I’m hoping to receive an “undetectable” result by the end of this year. That’s what I’m hoping and praying for. It’s a long road, but I feel the worst is behind me and I’m prepared for a very long walk. 🙂
Watch Elle’s interview on 60 Minutes