Suzanne Bell, 40, discovered a lump in her left breast nine weeks into her pregnancy, as she rubbed Bio-Oil into her body to prevent stretch marks.
A mum who had a mastectomy to remove her left breast at 19 weeks pregnant celebrated Mother’s Day yesterday with her two daughters and the miracle baby boy she feared she might never meet.
Primary school teaching tutor Suzanne Bell, 40, discovered a lump in her left breast nine weeks into her pregnancy, as she rubbed Bio-Oil into her body to prevent stretch marks, but was initially unconcerned, thinking she was “too young to have cancer.”
Booking a “just in case” appointment with her GP two weeks later, she was then referred to Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospital’s Breast Clinic, near her home in Warrington, Cheshire, on April 23.
When she arrived at the appointment with her partner, primary school teacher Craig Thompson, 31, she still saw it as “a precaution.”
But when, after having a physical examination and ultrasound scan, the doctors asked to take a biopsy – a sample of tissue for closer examination – she suddenly realised, “this could be serious.”
“I’d gone from thinking it was absolutely nothing to feeling sick to my stomach with worry in seconds,” said Suzanne, whose daughters Sienna, eight, and Grace, four, are from a previous relationship.
She continued: “Everybody there, including Craig, told me to stop panicking, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was going to happen.”
And three days later, by which point she was 16 weeks pregnant, Suzanne was invited to a follow up appointment, where doctors told her she had stage one breast cancer, saying they had found a 4.5cm tumour in her left breast.
“I took Grace shopping that morning to take my mind off the appointment,” she recalled.
“I even took some of Craig’s schoolwork to look at while I sat in the waiting room. Lord knows what I looked like cutting up a carrier bag of laminated coloured card,” she continued.
“The nurse called me to the consultant’s room and asked if I had anybody with me. I told her I didn’t – I’d insisted Craig go to work, thinking they’d need to do more tests before telling me anything conclusive.
“But the doctor told me that everyone was shocked and surprised with the results – and that it was cancer. I was completely dazed.”
“Then I saw the booklet in the nurse’s lap – primary breast cancer care – and my world came crashing down. All I could muster was, ‘I can’t have cancer – I’m pregnant,’” she continued.
“The doctor insisted they wouldn’t force me into any treatment that I didn’t want and told me to come back the following week, after the whole team had thought of the best way to move forwards.”
In a daze for the rest of the day, it was that evening, when she broke the news to Craig -who she had met through work and had been seeing for 16 months – that reality really hit home.
“Craig was so excited about becoming a dad. Now I feared I could be denying him that opportunity,” she said.
“He was amazing though – telling me he’d support me no matter what happened.”
Then, a week after her diagnosis, Suzanne’s consultant informed her she would need a mastectomy to remove her left breast on May 21, which should be possible without harming her baby.
Suzanne, who is not aware of having any family history of breast cancer, said: “As soon as a date was set for the operation, I put my will in order. However hard, I had to be realistic, especially as I had my children to consider, so I spoke to Craig about what would need to take place if something happened to me.
“Of course the girls would live with their dad, but Craig has been such a big part of the girls lives for so long, we wanted to make sure that continued and he still had a role if I wasn’t around.
“I still think back to all that uncertainty. You’re never out of the woods with cancer, so who’s to say what could happen in the future? There’s always a risk it could return, but I don’t dwell on that.”
She added: “By making a will, I have planned for the worst, but I always hope for the best.”
However, reconstructive surgery would not be possible at the same time, as it would require a lengthy operation, which would pose too great a risk to her pregnancy.
“I wasn’t bothered about any of that,” she said. “I just wanted the cancer gone and for my baby to survive.”
Suzanne’s most difficult job was telling her daughters what was happening.
She said: “I wanted to be as honest as possible with them, so I told them doctors had found a lump in Mummy’s boob and that it would make her very poorly if they didn’t remove it.
“Straight away Sienna turned around and said, ‘Mummy have you got breast cancer?'”
She continued: “That moment will live with me forever.”
Suzanne’s daughters also provided a much-needed laugh during dark times.
She continued: “Grace could not comprehend what the doctors were going to do with my boob, so I eventually told her they’d throw it in the bin.”
“I collected Grace from school the next day and a nursery nurse asked if she could have a word,” she said.
“She said Grace had told all her class during ‘show and tell’ the doctor was going to ‘cut Mummy’s boob off and throw it in the bin.'”
But when Suzanne dropped her children at their father’s house, before she went into Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals for her operation, all her daughters wanted to know was if the baby would be ok.
She added: “The morning of the operation the girls had a gazillion questions – all about the baby. Would the baby be ok? Would the doctors disturb the baby? Would the baby fall asleep like Mummy?”
Ironically, not only had the pregnancy been completely unplanned, but only a few months beforehand in December 2018, Suzanne had been told she was going into early menopause.
“I was a day late for my period, which wasn’t anything new by that point – I was so irregular – but I just had a hunch and took a pregnancy test,” she said.
Finding out she was pregnant on February 13, she decided to break the news to Craig in his card on Valentine’s Day.
She said: “I wrote inside his card, ‘You’re going to be a daddy.’
“He was over the moon.”
But now, only a few months later, she was terrified in case she lost the baby which had been such a welcome surprise.
She recalled: “All I could think about was Craig and how if the baby didn’t survive he might never be a dad. In the end I told him not to come down to theatre with me – his face was a reminder of everything that was at risk.
“All I could think about was that I might wake up without my left boob and my baby.”
She continued: “The nurse took my hand and I said, ‘please look after my baby.”
Fortunately, mother and baby survived and two weeks later Suzanne was told the cancer had not spread, so she would not need additional chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
“I woke up clutching my bump and the nurse told me everything had gone smoothly. It was all I needed to hear and I drifted back off to sleep, nothing else mattered,” she said.
“It was only later on that I started to worry that the cancer would come back and spread before I gave birth,” she continued.
“I had such stupid thoughts, like what would happen if I needed chemotherapy or radiotherapy – despite being told I didn’t. What if I ended up with an Oompa Loompa, like the orange characters in Willy Wonka, or a Smurf instead of a baby?”
And, despite reassurances that she still looked beautiful from her partner, Suzanne’s funny daughters were the tonic she needed when her mastectomy scar left her “feeling like a monster.”
She said: “Sienna saw my scar and said, ‘two boobs, one boob, no boob – you’re still our mummy.’
“Grace wasn’t fazed either. All she wanted to do was cover the bandage in Peppa Pig plasters – and of course I let her.”
But the girls were far less supportive of Suzanne’s decision not to find out the sex of the baby until after the birth.
She said: ”Craig and I decided that we wouldn’t find out the sex of the baby from the very beginning as, ultimately, it’s nice to have a surprise at the end and the cancer didn’t change that.
“We took Sienna and Grace to the 20-week scan and the sonographer asked if we wanted to find out the sex. They were desperate to know, but we said no.
“The girls kept calling us boring so I explained it was like Christmas, when Santa brings surprises on Christmas day.”
“Sienna turned to me and said, ‘No he doesn’t – he makes a list and brings them,’” she said.
“You have to appreciate her logic, but we were adamant it was remaining a surprise nonetheless.”
So, the whole family celebrated the big reveal, when Suzanne returned to the same hospital on October 3, for a planned Caesarean and gave birth to her 7lb 3oz son, Theo.
Remembering the moment when his head emerged, she said: “It was amazing seeing him come out, like a little Alien.
“Craig had it in his head it was a boy and I was convinced it was a girl. When the baby wiggled out I kept asking, ‘What have we got? What have we got?’
“The baby was half in and half out and we were waiting and waiting. As soon as the doctors pulled him out and revealed he was a boy Craig said, ‘I told you so.’”
She continued: “I was crying and couldn’t believe he’d made it through the past however many months.”
Fitted with a prosthetic breast, Suzanne – who will need annual check-ups for the next 10 years – has now decided against breast reconstruction.
“It seems silly to put myself and my family through elected surgery,” Suzanne said.
She continued: “Anyway, I’m kind of used to the prosthetic now – the kids certainly are.
“The other day Sienna came over and asked where my boob was. I asked her why and she told me they’d lost the tennis ball and wanted to play catch!”
And yesterday, Suzanne celebrated Mother’s Day with the same innocent humour and breakfast in bed.
“We’re so grateful for Theo in more ways than one – as without him, I wouldn’t have been massaging my boobs, so he saved my life,” said Suzanne.
For more information about breast cancer, click here
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