MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 08-Aug-14 10:52:23

Guest post: What is it like to be diagnosed with cancer when you're pregnant?

At 17 weeks pregnant, Matilda Tristram was diagnosed with colon cancer. Matilda has now written an illustrated memoir about her experiences - Probably Nothing - and here, she argues that the clichéd language around both cancer and pregnancy is problematic.

Matilda Tristram

Writer and illustrator

Posted on: Fri 08-Aug-14 10:52:22

(14 comments )

Lead photo

Matilda's illustrations from 'Probably Nothing'

When people ask 'what was it like to discover you had cancer when you were pregnant?', the word I usually use is, 'devastating'. I can hear my voice saying it in lots of different ways: emphatic, understated, withering, cheerful. I find that it's easier to describe what we did, where we went or what we said to each other, rather than how we felt.

There's a scene in Probably Nothing - the comic I wrote during my treatment - where I describe it to a counsellor: 'I can't believe I'm having to deal with all this shit when I ought to be sitting on a lotus leaf relaxing before I have a baby.' I only went to see her once - I was put off by the huge box of tissues on the table and couldn't cry.

We didn't go to any antenatal classes either, and I stayed away from other pregnant women, mostly. I hated it when I did have to go to the clinic and be around healthy expectant mothers. The chemotherapy I was having, to make it less likely that I'd die in a few years, could have been harming my baby. I felt jealous of the problems the other women described; one talked about eating potatoes and how it affected her blood sugar levels, then about how she ought to have had her cervix stitched shut. I drew a picture of me saying to my partner, Tom, 'ought to have had your mouth stitched shut, more like.'

It took several GP appointments and two visits to A&E before my symptoms were taken seriously. Perhaps if pregnant women weren't assumed to be as ditzy as the language surrounding pregnancy implies, doctors would have taken action sooner.


Writing down the jokes that Tom and I made with each other helped me to feel better, even though they were often jokes about appalling things. When I first started chemo it made my shit look like cappuccino - 'the froth and the coffee'. I told Tom about it and he said 'what about the chocolate powder heart?' It seems amazing now that we could make jokes at all, but we could.

And jokes were certainly preferable to the language that surrounds cancer. It's so euphemistic and dishonest. People want to hear that you're 'thinking positive' when really you're furious and terrified. In get-well cards, people are sorry to hear 'your news', and no one can bring themselves to say 'cancer'. Cancer metaphors are unhelpful, too, words like 'battling' imply that it's your own fault if you die, that you didn't 'fight' the disease hard enough.

Alongside all this, I found words used to describe pregnancy and pregnant mothers infantile, and just as problematic. Growing foetuses are known as 'bump', 'bean', 'raisin', even. As soon as I got pregnant, my stomach became my 'belly' and my pregnancy app encouraged me to take and share 'proud belly pics'. I didn't, because mine was covered in scars and had a colostomy bag stuck to it. Suddenly it's normal to talk about yourself in the third person; 'How's Mummy today?' ('Oh, she’s OK, just thinking about her own funeral again'.)

Before I was diagnosed, during my first trimester, it took several GP appointments and two visits to A&E before my symptoms were taken seriously. Perhaps if pregnant women weren't assumed to be as ditzy as the language surrounding pregnancy implies, doctors would have taken action sooner, and the operation I had - to remove a tumour that had grown large enough to completely block my bowel - wouldn't have been so dangerous for my baby and me.

James was born halfway through my chemo treatment. He's just had his first birthday and is completely wonderful. Fortunately, he wasn't harmed by the chemo at all. My scans are currently clear and I'm in what they call 'remission'. There's a good chance my cancer will never come back, but also a chance that it will. Fear often catches me out, though. It's times when I'm happiest, watching James squeaking at his stacking cups or taking him for walks in the countryside with Tom, that I'm reminded of what I might lose.

I prefer not to be called a 'survivor' – that pesky cancer-speak again. To me, 'surviving' connects me to cancer and death. I'm not merely surviving now that my scans are clear. I'm living, and that feels different and better.

By Matilda Tristram

Twitter: @Colonoclast

Waitingonasunnyday Fri 08-Aug-14 12:10:52

Thank you for posting this. My mum was diagnosed with cancer when pregnant, and its something no one seems to talk about. I am so glad you are doing so well, your family sounds wonderful.

halfdrunkcoffee Fri 08-Aug-14 14:01:03

I read about you in the Guardian (I think you were still pregnant at the time) so I am happy to see you now have a lovely healthy little boy. Finding out you have cancer must be horrific at any time, and I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like during pregnancy. Thank you for sharing your story.

And my son LOVES Abney and Teal. He has been watching it for over a year now and never tires of it!

weebarra Fri 08-Aug-14 17:08:16

Thank you for sharing your story. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer when DD was 8 weeks old - she's one is August and I'm still here! It was hard enough with a tiny baby (and her two big brothers) so I can't imagine what it must have been like when pregnant.

MarlboroMary Fri 08-Aug-14 19:02:41

Thanks for sharing your story. Sorry you had to go through this.

WaxyDaisy Fri 08-Aug-14 19:06:03

I'm not entirely sure what is an appropriate response to your post, but it is powerful, witty and enlightening. Thank you.

Also I LOVE Dipdap. It makes me roar grin.

OanaChi Sat 09-Aug-14 04:17:52

I am happy to hear you are well. We lost a baby to cancer five weeks ago and have heard many silly things during his treatment.xx

mignonette Sat 09-Aug-14 15:38:42

My SIL had cancer during her pregnancy and lost out on most of her first childs first year because of her treatment and convalescence.

Thank you for this.

spanky2 Sat 09-Aug-14 20:27:05

Brave and inspiring. Thank you.

FrontForward Sat 09-Aug-14 23:18:44

It's really hard to comment because I'm now fearful of my own inadequacy at expressing anything. It sounds really shit possibly covers it

My sister was diagnosed age 37. She too took ages to be diagnosed because diarrhoea alternating with constipation, anaemia , weight loss and bleeding from her bowel wasn't apparently symptomatic enough. In the words of her GP when the fear of cancer was said to him (for the umpteenth time) ... *c'mon you're 37...far too young for that'

Bitter. Yes

After I was told, it was advanced and pretty hopeless...I can remember a midwife where I work looking at me sobbing in total disdain at my lack of control. I'm not sure these individuals real use how there words stay with you. I feel strong emotion towards those people now.

Some people mean no harm, they just lack life experience. Others are just heartless.

12 yrs on and dSis and I went for a walk together today. ��

FrontForward Sat 09-Aug-14 23:20:03

<sigh>. Effing spell check

Hope you can make some sense of it

Greyhound Sun 10-Aug-14 14:30:57

OanaChi - I'm so very sorry to hear about your baby. How appallingly sad.

Matilda - going to download your book. Sounds amazing. Hope your health continues to be good.

Greyhound Sun 10-Aug-14 16:37:45

Reading the book now - love it. Makes me sad and laugh at the same time.

Greyhound Sun 10-Aug-14 21:30:34

Interesting - why are pregnant women assumed to be temporarily mad, stupid or incapable of making a sensible decision? Odd.

Cinders12 Sun 10-Aug-14 22:34:48

Incredibly inspiring

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