Nicole Austin spent 130 days in the NICU willing her tiny premature daughter Bowie to survive.
And two weeks after they made it home, the new mum was shattered to receive a cruel health blow herself: she was diagnosed with late-stage, incurable cervical cancer.
The signs had been there – fatigue, nausea, weight loss – but the mother-of-two and her wife Kristy had dismissed them as side effects of having a newborn in hospital.
Speaking to FEMAIL Nicole said the Sydney-based family, including their toddler Liv, arrived back home on December 20 ready to shut the door on the scariest period of their lives.
They were overjoyed to be out of hospital just in time for Christmas after four months, even if it meant negotiating motherhood with an oxygen tank on hand.
‘We were also pretty nervous to be leaving the hospital because we had relied on the doctors and nurses so much, and coming home with a baby that needs oxygen is quite scary,’ she said.
Nicole Austin, pictured with her daughter Bowie, was diagnosed with cancer two weeks after spending 130 days in hospital with her newborn, wiling her to live
The mum, pictured with wife Kristy, toddler Liv and newborn Bowie, had gastro symptoms checked out eight days after the family came home from hospital
‘It was a massive day for us, we were so excited to be able to spend the holidays together.’
But fate wasn’t done with the family and on December 28 it was Nicole’s turn to head to hospital after she suffered gastro symptoms that she simply couldn’t shake.
‘It came with a huge amount of pain I can only describe as pressure in my abdomen,’ she said.
The family had just celebrated Christmas, and being out of hospital when their lives were turned upside down again – her ‘gastro’ symptoms exploded on December 28
‘Liv handed me a doll, kind of threw it on my stomach, and I went through the roof,’ she said.
The pain was excruciating, and as the rest of the family were gastro free she decided to check it out.
‘I thought if it wasn’t gastro it must have been some kind of parasite or something,’ she said.
But doctors decided to send her for an ultrasound ‘just in case’, and, on January 4, a mass was found on her liver.
‘The technician said I couldn’t go home and needed a CT scan, which is when they found the tumours in my lungs and ovaries,’ she said.
Nicole struggled with pregnancy from the 20-week mark when doctors found she had a shortened cervix
At this point Nicole knew something was bad, but hadn’t even considered cancer.
‘The imaging people told me I had to go straight to my doctor, I asked if my wife could head to work that afternoon and they said no,’ she said.
Feeling anxious, the 38-year-old took herself to the doctor while her partner stayed how with their children.
‘He said “There’s no easy way to say this, you have got cancer”, I was just shocked and cried the whole way home,’ she said.
‘I don’t really remember that night but I know I walked in the house and Kristy knew straight away that it was really bad. I told her and we just held each other.’
Their tiny daughter was born six days after Nicole’s waters broke at 22 weeks and five days
The cancer, a squamous cell carcinoma originating in the cervical region, started to grow less than nine months before it showed up on the scans.
‘It all happened so quickly, they cant tell me when it started growing but they do know it wasn’t there nine months ago.
They know this because Bowie was conceived using IVF, which is an invasive process and a tumour in that area would have been seen.
It also would have been picked up later, as the mother was under the microscope from the 20-week mark.
‘I was diagnosed with a short cervix during my 20 week scan, so I was referred to the Royal Hospital for Women, in Sydney,’ she said.
At 22 weeks and five days Nicole’s waters broke, and they received the devastating news that the pregnancy was not yet viable.
Nicole, who has always lived an active lifestyle, is terrified for her partner Kristy, left
‘It is only when something like this happens you realise the importance of counting by days,’ she said.
Everyone worked hard to keep the baby inside, with every day giving her a stronger chance of survival.
‘I was naïve then because I thought you went into labour when your waters broke, but we got her to stay inside for another six days,’ she said.
‘The professor explained that miracles don’t happen at midnight, she needed every minute inside,’ she said.
Bowie came in September and all of Nicole and Kristy’s energy went into looking after their toddler and willing their baby to live.
In retrospect Nicole said she should have realised something was wrong in November – but everyone was focused on Bowie by then.
She’s also devastated that she may not be able to see her daughters grow up or ‘make her mark’ on them
‘I was lethargic and had night sweats, and that’s when I started losing weight,’ she said.
Doctors haven’t told Nicole she’s terminal – however they have explained there’s no cure for her disease.
They have prescribed 18 weeks of chemo and told her once it’s done they can ‘reassess’.
‘I am okay for a day or two and then I am super nauseous, then on day four I get flattened by fatigue for a few days, I am not very helpful,’ she said.
‘By day seven I am back to being able to be a contributing member of the household, but the nausea lingers, it can linger the whole time.’
She is at the point where eating is difficult, but is conscious she needs to maintain her current weight of 46 kilos at minimum, and put some on if possible.
‘My liver is so enlarged by the tumours that it has started to push against my stomach, so when I eat and my stomach gets bigger it is very painful,’ she said.
Nicole can be halfway through a sandwich and get a jolt of extreme pain.
She is feeling positive about the chemo, and her body’s ability to fight the disease so she can have more time with her family.
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t afraid.
Her terror is for her family.
Nicole is now going through chemo – which she receives every three weeks, in the hopes of shrinking the fast-growing tumours
‘I can’t stop thinking about Kristy, who is going to be left to be a single mum to these two children.’ she said.
‘And that they will grow up without me being there to make my mark,’ she added.
She is sad for herself.
‘You never think it is going to happen to you, and I try not to complain, I am trying to stay positive but there is that little voice that says it is just unfair,’ she said.
‘I wanna see my girls grow up, I want to be there for Kristy.’
It also breaks her heart that she doesn’t have as much energy as she used to.
‘I can’t pick up liv, and Bowie wriggles a lot so I don’t feel safe holding her as much,’ she said.
‘it is also really hard to hear Liv ask if I am away sleeping again, because she has started to understand I am sick.’
Nicole and Kristy have taken long service leave, maternity leave and sick leave in order to be there for Bowie, and now to stick together as a family unit.
Nicole and Kristy have taken long service leave, maternity leave and sick leave in order to be there for Bowie, and now to stick together as a family unit
One of their friends has started a fundraiser to help them get by when their income streams finally run out.
Nicole hopes she will be back to work soon, but there’s no guarantee.
The mum wants other women to know the signs and to head to the doctor the moment something’s not right.
She regrets pushing her own health to the side, even though she didn’t realise that’s what she was doing at the time.
‘I was lucky, doctors were onto it straight away. But if you think something’s wrong and they don’t then be consistent because I have met people with devastating stories about being ignored when they knew something was wrong,’ she said.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Precancerous changes in cervical cells rarely cause symptoms. The only way to know if there are abnormal cells that may develop into cancer is to have a cervical screening test. If early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, the most common signs include:
vaginal bleeding between periods
menstrual bleeding that is longer or heavier than usual
pain during intercourse
bleeding after intercourse
a change in your vaginal discharge such as more discharge or it may have a strong or unusual colour or smell
vaginal bleeding after menopause.
These symptoms can be caused by other conditions but if you are worried or symptoms persist, contact your doctor. This is important for anyone with a cervix, whether you are straight, lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender.
Typical cancer symptoms
Unexplained ache or pain. Pain can be a way our bodies tell us something is wrong
Weakness in limbs and dizziness.
Abnormal sweating, especially at night.
Unexplained weight loss.
Unusual lump or swelling.
Source: Cancer Council