A young mom revealed how her daughter's first birthday was especially poignant as it marked a milestone in her own recovery from a rare cancer. Diagnosed just 48 hours before giving birth and requiring surgery three days later.
Poppy Stewart-Brown was told the headaches and nosebleeds she suffered during her pregnancy were common side effects.
She opened up about how she felt like a “failure" for being so unwell and did not know how women had more than one baby.
But, just two days before giving birth to her daughter Arabella, she discovered that a painful "spot" on the left side of her nose was actually a tumor that had been silently growing from her jawbone and causing her symptoms.
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her daughter Arabella in summer 2019, whilst she was undergoing cancer treatment (PA Real Life/Collect)
She had Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer diagnosed in only 600 people in the UK each year, according to the NHS.
She is now speaking out during Cancer and Pregnancy Awareness Week.
Tommy Bolger, her partner, told how recalled how she feared she would never see Arabella's first birthday.
“I feel so lucky to be here today," she said.
“Celebrating Arabella's first birthday was incredible, especially as it was a day I thought I might never see."
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her boyfriend Tommy Bolger with their daughter Arabella as she underwent cancer treatment in 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Stewart discovered she was pregnant in October 2018.
“While we were in Turkey, I picked up what I thought was a sickness bug. I was nauseous and felt so tired," said Poppy, who had moved back to the UK with Tommy after the summer holiday season," she said.
“I didn't want him to think I was boring, but I was so exhausted that all I wanted to do was lie down."
Poppy Stewart-Brown and Tommy Bolger when they met in Zante, Greece, during the summer of 2018 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“He jokingly asked if I could be pregnant and we decided to take a test just in case. It turned out I was about six weeks gone," she continued.
“It hadn't been a sickness bug at all. It was a little Arabella growing away."
Although unplanned, the couple were overjoyed to be pregnant. But, within a month, Poppy started having frequent headaches and nose bleeds, which doctors said were common and attributed to the swell of hormones.
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her boyfriend Tommy Bolger on NYE 2018, in the early days of her pregnancy (PA Real Life/Collect)
In February 2019, she also discovered a mysterious spot on the left side of her nose she was referred to a specialist for further investigations.
Then, she went to A&E at the Princess Royal Hospital with a blinding headache and struggling to breathe out of her left nostril, believing something was seriously wrong.
A biopsy of the spot revealed that, then 34 weeks pregnant, Stewart had sarcoma, a cancer affecting the bones and their surrounding tissue.
But her shock had barely registered when, just 48 hours later, she gave birth to Arabella by caesarean section.
“Cancer is not something I'd been exposed to much before this, so it never crossed my mind that I could have it," she said.
“I honestly thought I was just reacting very badly to being pregnant. I felt like a failure, and couldn't understand how women had more than one child."
“I missed out on so much in the first months of Arabella's life. You picture taking your baby home from hospital and starting this new life together – but instead I was beginning cancer treatment."
Poppy Stewart-Brown and her newborn daughter Arabella (PA Real Life/Collect)
Before her diagnosis, Stewart had believed she was simply having a rotten pregnancy, although she had found clots in her nosebleeds and had even been to casualty because of her headaches.
“I went to A&E a few times," she said. “Every time, they did lots of tests to make sure Arabella was okay, which she was."
“Everyone was baffled. There were no obvious signs of what was causing me to feel quite so awful, so everybody thought it was just a reaction to the pregnancy."
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her partner Tommy Bolger just before her diagnosis, when she was seven months pregnant and suffering with a headache (PA Real Life/Collect)
“It got so bad that clots would just appear in my mouth and nose. It was absolutely vile," she continued.
“On top of all that, I was utterly exhausted. I would get up, go to work, then come home and just sleep."
Then, in February 2019, Stewart found a spot on the left side of her nose and, after a cream doctors gave her had no effect, she was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Poppy Stewart-Brown after surgery to remove the tumour in her jaw on April 29, 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
At her March 2019 appointment, a scan revealed a mass in her jaw had grown up towards her nose, causing the spot.
“I had faith that I would be okay," said Stewart, adding that doctors did not, initially, think it was cancerous.
“I was only 23 and, before this, had been completely fit and healthy. Nobody ever expected it would be something so sinister."
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her boyfriend Tommy Bolger and their daughter Arabella, pictured here as she was undergoing chemotherapy in summer 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“My head was in agony and I was struggling to breathe out of my left nostril because the spot had grown," she said.
When tests revealed that the spot had turned septic, she was blue-lighted to Brighton's larger Royal Sussex County Hospital, where she was given painkillers and antibiotics and a biopsy of the tissue on her nose was sent away for analysis.
“Because I'd gone in right before two bank holidays, it took a while for the results to come back," she said.
“The doctors were absolutely fantastic and I can't thank them enough, but I was in so much pain that the memory is still a little hazy. I couldn't even have the light on as it hurt my eyes."
She struggled with taking medication while pregnant.
“I remember them using strong painkillers and thinking, 'This must be bad if they're giving me these while I'm pregnant,'" she said.
On April 24, her test results revealed that she had Ewing sarcoma and that the mass in her jaw was a 10cm tumor.
Usually occurring in bones like the hips, thigh, and shin symptoms of Ewing sarcoma, according to the NHS. Symptoms include pain, swelling and tenderness in the affected area, a fever, severe tiredness and weight loss.
Poppy Stewart-Brown with Arabella during her treatment as she was undergoing cancer treatment (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The consultant was speaking in doctor language. I told him I didn't understand, then it dawned on me that he was saying I had cancer," Stewart said.
“It sounds strange now, but because I already knew Arabella was okay from all the extra tests they'd been doing, the first thing I said was, 'Am I going to lose my hair?'"
“It was the only thing I could think of to associate with a cancer patient."
Poppy Stewart-Brown and Tommy Bolger with their daughter Arabella at a party they had in lieu of a baby shower in May 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
That same day, Stewart was linked up with the charity CLIC Sargent, who assigned her a social worker to support her through the months ahead.
And, just 48 hours later, she delivered Arabella six weeks early.
“I had coincidentally booked in for a C-section at 31 weeks, before my diagnosis, as I had been struggling so much with pregnancy, I didn't know how I would get through a natural birth," she said.
Poppy Stewart-Brown and Tommy Bolger with their daughter Arabella (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The doctors wanted to keep Arabella in my womb for as long as possible and, at 34 weeks – two days after my bombshell news – it was decided she was strong enough," she said.
Once born, Arabella was taken to neonatal intensive care, where she soon began to thrive.
But Stewart faced a five-hour operation just three days later on April 29, during which surgeons removed as much of the tumor as possible. But, it could not reach its roots, which were wrapped around her jawbone.
Arabella whilst she was in neonatal intensive care (PA Real Life/Collect)
Recovering for eight days in Royal Sussex County Hospital, baby Arabella was a few floors away on a different ward.
“Tommy was amazing and would wheel me down to see her, but it wasn't the same as being able to cuddle her whenever I wanted to," she said.
“Those first days of Arabella's life were so different to what I'd anticipated. My mother's instinct was to hold and cradle her, but cancer took that from me. I couldn't bear to hear the other mums with their babies on the ward. It broke my heart."
Scared, isolated and highly vulnerable to infection, young cancer patients like Leo urgently need your support now… https://t.co/LU8SaE4RKA— CLIC Sargent (@CLIC Sargent)1588658705.0
Stewart had a three-week break before beginning the first of 14 rounds of chemotherapy at the renowned Royal Marsden in Sutton, south London.
“I was put on a special ward for young people and the staff were incredible, even giving me a private room so Arabella and Tommy could visit," she continued.
“But when they weren't with me, I barely left my room. Mentally, I couldn't come to terms with my diagnosis. I had seen cancer patients on TV and in ad appeals, but it's so different to be living it. I couldn't help but think, 'Why me? What did I do to deserve this?'"
Poppy Stewart-Brown with her daughter Arabella on her first day of chemotherapy in May 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
In addition, Stewart struggled physically with the side-effects of chemotherapy, which often left her too exhausted to look after Arabella.
“I wanted to be able to feed her, change her nappy and bathe her. But at times, I'd be so exhausted that if somebody said to me, 'I'll give you £1m to make her a bottle,' I wouldn't have been able to do it. I was so lucky with the incredible support I got from Tommy and our families, but I worried in case my bond with my baby would be impacted," she added.
In October 2019, Stewart also began proton beam therapy, a pioneering form of radiotherapy only available at a handful of UK hospitals.
Poppy Stewart-Brown cuddling her daughter Arabella in November 2019, during her proton beam therapy treatment (PA Real Life/Collect)
She had 31 sessions, alongside chemotherapy, at Manchester's Christie Hospital.
“Tommy, Arabella, my mum and I all relocated to Manchester for a couple of months while I had my treatment," she said.
“I had 31 sessions in total, five times a week for just under seven weeks. We stayed in special accommodation, but it was really difficult being so far from home"
“The treatment left me weak, exhausted and scarcely able to eat. It was awful, but we tried to snatch some happy moments too, and take Arabella for days out around the city when we could. For those brief moments, I could feel like a mum rather than a cancer patient."
Poppy with Tommy and Arabella at Old Trafford football ground, Manchester, whilst she was having proton beam therapy (PA Real Life/Collect)
At the end of February 2020, once her chemotherapy finished, doctors told Stewart they believed her tumor had gone and that there were no signs of the cancer being active again elsewhere in her body.
She has to wait a little longer before receiving an official all clear, but, for now, doctors are happy with her progress and continue to monitor her with scans.
But her biggest milestone was celebrating Arabella's first birthday on April 26.
Poppy Stewart-Brown and Tommy Bolger with their daughter Arabella on her first birthday in April 2020 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Although in lockdown, she made the day as special as possible with cake, balloons, and banners and hopes to have a proper party with all her loved ones when restrictions are eased.
Speaking out to raise awareness of sarcoma and to thank CLIC Sargent. And, to urge people to donate to their emergency appeal so they can continue to be there for families navigating cancer.
“I have so many people I want to thank – Andrew Pelser, the ear, nose and throat doctor, and his team, who saved my life, the midwives on the maternity unit who delivered Bella, Julia Chisholm and the absolutely amazing staff at the Royal Marsden, Sam at Teenage Cancer Trust and each and every incredible NHS worker, from cleaners to consultants, at Princess Royal, Manchester Christie and Royal Marsden Hospitals," she said.
“From day one, CLIC Sargent have been incredible. They even helped with little things like providing vouchers to pamper myself with, and with practicalities I didn't have the headspace to think about, such as hospital parking. It was a horrible time, but they were there throughout – not just for me, but for my family."
Poppy Stewart-Brown and Tommy Bolger with their daughter Arabella, October 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
CLIC Sargent Chief Executive Rachel Kirby-Rider is appealing for help.
“Since the coronavirus hit the UK our income fell off a cliff, an instant 60% drop. We face losing £8million – which for a charity of our size is devastating," she said.
"Many families we support were already at financial breaking point before the pandemic and things are getting tougher for them."
“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, CLIC Sargent has given out over $56,000 in hardship grants to families in crisis struggling to afford the essentials such as food and paying bills."
“Cancer doesn't stop for coronavirus and the young cancer patients and families we support like Poppy are facing a real crisis and need us more than ever. We urgently need funding to do that."
To support CLIC Sargent and donate today, click here