Nicole Austin spent 130 days in the NICU hoping her premature baby daughter, Bowie, would survive.
And two weeks after arriving home, the new mom was devastated to receive a cruel health shock herself: she was diagnosed with advanced-stage, incurable cervical cancer.
The signs had been there—fatigue, nausea, weight loss—but the mother of two and his wife Kristy had written them off as side effects of having a newborn in the hospital.
Speaking to FEMAIL, Nicole said the Sydney-based family, including her little girl Liv, returned home on December 20 ready to close the door on the scariest period of their lives.
They were delighted to be out of the hospital just in time for Christmas after four months, even if it meant negotiating motherhood with an oxygen tank on hand.
“We were also quite nervous about leaving the hospital because we had put so much trust in the doctors and nurses, and coming home with a baby that needs oxygen is pretty 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, wishing she would live.
The mother, pictured with wife Kristy, toddler Liv and newborn Bowie, was checked for gastrointestinal symptoms eight days after the family returned home from the hospital.
“It was a great day for us, we were very excited to be able to spend the holidays together.”
But fate did not end the family and on December 28 it was Nicole’s turn to go to the hospital after suffering gastrointestinal symptoms that she simply could not help.
“It came in with a great deal of pain that I can only describe as pressure in my abdomen,” she said.
The family had just celebrated Christmas, and were out of hospital when their lives were turned upside down again: their ‘gastro’ symptoms flared on December 28.
“Liv handed me a doll, threw it into my stomach, and I went sky high,” she said.
The pain was excruciating and since the rest of the family did not have gastroenteritis, she decided to check it out.
“I thought if it wasn’t gastro it must have been some kind of parasite or something,” he said.
But the doctors decided to send her for an ultrasound ‘just in case’ and, on January 4, they found a mass in her liver.
“The technician said I couldn’t go home and needed a CT scan, which is when they found the tumors in my lungs and ovaries,” she said.
Nicole struggled with the pregnancy from the 20th week when doctors discovered that she had a shortened cervix
In that moment, Nicole knew something was wrong, but she hadn’t even considered cancer.
“The imaging people told me I had to go directly to my doctor, I asked if my wife could come to work that afternoon and they said no,” he said.
Feeling anxious, the 38-year-old went to the doctor while her partner stayed with their children.
“He said, ‘There’s no easy way to say this, you have cancer.’ I was shocked and cried all the way home,” she said.
“I don’t really remember that night, but I do know that I walked into the house and Kristy knew right away that it was really bad.” I told him and we hugged.
Their little daughter was born six days after Nicole’s water broke at 22 weeks and five days.
The cancer, a squamous cell carcinoma that originates in the cervical region, began to grow less than nine months before it showed up on scans.
“It all happened so fast that they can’t tell me when it started growing, but they know it wasn’t there nine months ago.”
They know this because Bowie was conceived through IVF, which is an invasive process and a tumor would have been seen in that area.
It would also have been detected later, since the mother was under the microscope from 20 weeks.
“I was diagnosed with a short cervix during my 20-week scan and was referred to the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney,” she said.
At 22 weeks and five days Nicole’s water broke and they received the devastating news that the pregnancy was not yet viable.
Nicole, who has always led an active lifestyle, is terrified of her partner Kristy, left
“It’s only when something like this happens that you realize the importance of counting by days,” he said.
They all worked hard to keep the baby inside, giving it a better chance of survival every day.
“I was naive then because I thought you went into labor when your water broke, but we got her to stay inside for another six days,” she said.
“The teacher explained that miracles don’t happen at midnight, she needed every minute inside,” she said.
Bowie arrived in September and all of Nicole and Kristy’s energy went into caring for their baby and wishing their baby would live.
Looking back, Nicole said she should have realized something was wrong in November, but by then everyone was focused on Bowie.
She is 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 to lose weight,” she said.
The doctors have not told Nicole that it is terminal; however, they have explained that there is no cure for her disease.
They have prescribed 18 weeks of chemo and told her that once it is over they can “re-evaluate”.
“I’m fine for a day or two and then I’m really nauseous, then on the fourth day I’m overwhelmed with fatigue for a few days, not much help,” she said.
“By day seven, I’m back to being a contributing member of the household, but the nausea lingers, it can linger all the time.”
She is at a point where it is difficult for her to eat, but she is aware that she needs to maintain her current weight of at least 100lbs, and gain if possible.
“My liver is so enlarged from the tumors that it has started to push against my stomach, so when I eat and my stomach enlarges, it hurts a lot,” he said.
Nicole can be in the middle of a sandwich and be jolted in extreme pain.
She feels positive about the chemotherapy and her body’s ability to fight the disease so she can spend more time with her family.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid.
His terror is for his family.
Nicole is now undergoing chemotherapy, which she receives every three weeks, in hopes of shrinking the fast-growing tumors.
“I can’t stop thinking about Kristy staying as a single mom to these two kids.” she said.
“And that they will grow without me being there to make my mark,” he added.
She is sad by herself.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you, and I try not to complain, I try to stay positive, but there’s that little voice that says it’s unfair,” she said.
“I want to see my daughters grow up, I want to be there for Kristy.”
It also breaks her heart that she doesn’t have as much energy as before.
“I can’t pick Liv up, and Bowie squirms a lot, so I don’t feel safe holding her that much,” she said.
“It’s also very hard to hear Liv ask if I’m sleeping again, because she’s starting to understand that I’m sick.”
Nicole and Kristy have taken lengthy leaves of service, maternity leave, and sick leave to be there for Bowie, and now stay together as a family unit.
Nicole and Kristy have taken lengthy furloughs, maternity leave, and sick leave to be there for Bowie, and now to stay together as a family unit.
One of their friends has started a fundraiser to help them get by when their sources of income finally dry up.
Nicole hopes to be back at work soon, but there’s no guarantee.
The mother wants other women to know the signs and go to the doctor the moment something is not right.
He regrets putting his own health aside, even though he didn’t realize that was what he was doing at the time.
‘I was lucky, the doctors noticed immediately. But if you think something is wrong and they don’t, then be consistent because I’ve met people with devastating stories about being ignored when they knew something was wrong,” he said.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix rarely cause symptoms. The only way to know if there are abnormal cells that can turn 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 normal
pain during intercourse
bleeding after intercourse
a change in your vaginal discharge, such as more discharge or it may have a strong or unusual color or odor
Vaginal bleeding after menopause.
These symptoms may be caused by other conditions, but if you are concerned or symptoms persist, contact your doctor. This is important for anyone with a cervix, whether you are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Typical symptoms of cancer
Pain or unexplained pain. Pain can be a way our bodies tell us that something is wrong.
Weakness in the extremities and dizziness.
Abnormal sweating, especially at night.
Unexplained weight loss.
Unusual lump or swelling.
Fountain: Cancer Council