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Northern Ireland mother who bravely delayed cancer treatment until her children were born

Mum-of-two Shelley Sloan tells how she and her husband Neil were given the shock diagnosis that she had blood cancer just after her much wanted pregnancy was confirmed

Happy family: Shelley Sloan with husband Neil and children Saul and Sadie
Happy family: Shelley Sloan with husband Neil and children Saul and Sadie
Shelley Sloan
The children playing

By Stephanie Bell

As she runs after her boisterous four-year-old twins, devoted mum Shelley Sloan shows no hint of the horrific journey she came through to bring her son and daughter into the world.

At her first scan, Shelley (37) and husband Neil (39) were over the moon to be told that they were expecting not one but two babies.

But less than 24 hours later the young couple's world was rocked when Shelley was given an out of the blue blood cancer diagnosis.

Alarming still was the fact that no doctor in Belfast had ever treated a pregnant leukaemia patient with Shelley's diagnosis before, and there was uncertainty over whether she, or her babies, would survive.

Determined that she was going to give her children every chance even though it meant possibly putting her own life on the line, Shelley refused treatment. She told no one apart from close friends and family about her diagnosis and took her chances to ensure her babies came into the world.

Shelley and Neil were overjoyed when on July 21, 2013 she naturally delivered Saul, who was born first weighing 4lb 14oz, and 40 minutes later his sister Sadie, who was 4lb 4oz.

The seriously ill mum was able to take her babies home just five days later.

Two weeks after Saul and Sadie were born, Shelley began treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia.

She was able to take her medication at home and still care for her newborns.

It is medication which she will be on for life but research has changed this once potentially fatal cancer into a manageable illness.

Today she is the proud mum of two energetic, adorable, feisty four-year-olds. She is lucky enough to work in the nursery school that Saul and Sadie attend and she gets to spend most days with them.

And while Shelley selflessly put her own life on the line to have her babies, she credits them with saving her life.

She shares her inspirational story today to lend her support to Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI's 2018 awareness campaign, My Lasting Impression.

As part of the year-long campaign, the charity is telling the stories of six blood cancer survivors using painted portraits, each done by a different Ulster University art graduate. Shelley's portrait was captured by Aisling Wilson, a young local artist.

Shelley met her husband Neil when they were teenagers growing up in east Belfast and she was 17 when they started dating. They married six years ago and soon after Shelley discovered she was pregnant, but sadly she had a miscarriage.

It made the couple realise they really did want to be parents and they tried again. They were both thrilled when Shelley fell pregnant very quickly.

She recalls: "The first shock was that I got pregnant so quickly. We found out in December 21, 2012 and had our first scan on January 20, 2013.

"I had a miscarriage a few weeks earlier and so during the scan I wouldn't look at the screen because I was terrified it wasn't real and there would be nothing there.

"Then the midwife said to Neil, 'what do you see', and he said 'two babies' and I was so relieved and delighted that I couldn't stop laughing. I laughed so much the midwife couldn't do the scan and told me to stop.

"It was just so lovely. We were so excited and couldn't wait to get home to tell all our family and friends."

But the next morning while still very much on a high from her good news, Shelley got an unexpected phone call from the Ulster Hospital asking her to return immediately for further blood tests.

During routine tests the midwife had struggled to fill a vial with Shelley's blood so she assumed that she needed another test because they hadn't got enough. She went alone as her husband was at work.

Once at the hospital, Shelley began a series of tests. Medical staff asked her several times if she wanted to call her husband but she didn't see the need.

As time passed, she became increasingly worried that something was wrong with her babies and asked the doctors what was going on.

She says: "I could see the medical staff looking at me very seriously and they kept asking me to ring Neil.

"He was in Portadown that day and I didn't see the point of bringing him all that way. I started to think something must be wrong with the babies. The last thing on my mind was that I had cancer. When they told me it didn't feel real.

"I just went into some kind of unreal world. I have never been in shock before but I think that was the first time. I must have looked like a ghost walking out of the hospital. I didn't cry because I wouldn't cry in front of people."

But the tears came once she was in the privacy of her car. Shelley was in such a state of shock that she recalls driving herself from the hospital to her sister's house in the rain - but looking back, it wasn't raining at all, it was her tears.

Her diagnosis was on a Friday and she was booked to attend the City Hospital on the Monday. Her husband was so stunned he refused to believe it and it wasn't until specialists confirmed her diagnosis on Monday that Neil's world also imploded.

Doctors wanted to start Shelley on treatment immediately but explained that they had no idea what the impact would be on her unborn babies.

For Shelley it was never going to be an option if it meant putting her babies at risk.

Doctors also explained that her life could be on the line and advised her to consider an abortion.

"They asked me to have an abortion and try again later. That was never going to be an option for me and they then weren't quite sure what to do with me," she says.

"They said that they didn't know if the treatment would affect the babies so I said no, I wouldn't take the risk.

"I was delaying the treatment for six months and they said they didn't know what would happen in those six months. The consultant told me afterwards that she was absolutely panicking about me the whole time.

"It was very scary for my family but they understood.

"Poor Neil was worried that he was going to be left with no wife and two babies.

"My attitude was that I am their mum and it is my job to protect them and they deserved a chance. There were times when I was scared and I was scared for my babies too. There was an option to have a treatment where they would clean my blood cells, which didn't involve having any medication, and I agreed to that.

"I went into hospital once a month for four hours to have my blood cleaned out and that really kept my white blood cell count down."

Against the odds Saul and Sadie were born and two weeks later Shelley began treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia.

It was another low point for her.

She explains: "It was almost like a realisation that I did have cancer because I had to start treatment. They give you 12 weeks worth of tablets at a time and when I saw the first batch I cried for two hours. It was as if suddenly I realised this is actually happening."

And while Shelley put her life on the line to save her twins, she credits her children with saving her life.

"I had no symptoms and if I hadn't been expecting the twins I would not have had the blood tests taken and goodness knows when I would have found out and at what stage it would have been at, so Saul and Sadie saved me," she says.

Shelley could be on medication for the rest of her life but has been told that there are studies ongoing in other countries proving that many patients can stop the treatment after five years.

It would mean having monthly blood tests to closely monitor her white cell count but because of a lack of funding the medical team here are unable to take her off the medication.

She says: "The doctors would love to take me off it and I am coming close to five years. I have to fast every day - two hours before I take the tablet and for an hour afterwards and then do that again 12 hours later.

"I also have terrible fatigue because of it and to come off it would greatly increase the quality of my life but the money for the blood tests isn't there."

After everything she has been through she says life is sweeter than ever: "I just feel so lucky to be here and I really do try to make the most of ever day. Yes I am tired but I am grateful for every day with my children and try to have fun with them every day. Many people are not so lucky which is why I am happy for this chance to support the campaign."

Every month in Northern Ireland, 99 people are diagnosed with blood cancer.

Thanks to scientists based in Belfast, funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI, three out of four people in Northern Ireland diagnosed with blood cancer survive. But for that one in four, there is still work to be done.

You can read more inspirational stories like Shelley's on the charity's Facebook page or their website and follow the campaign on Twitter at #MyLastingImpression #HiddenCancer

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