Health & Lifestyle

My ‘morning sickness’ ended up being cancer: Mother-to-be, 24, is diagnosed at five months pregnant after glossing over ‘weird’ nausea and golf ball-sized lump in neck

A mother-to-be diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has told how she glossed over her ‘weird’ symptoms.

Caitlin McAlinden, from the Wirral, suffered heavy morning sickness in her ‘rocky’ first trimester, vomiting at least once a day. 

The 24-year-old, who found out she was expecting in September 2023, would fall asleep intermittently due to her extreme tiredness.

Tiredness and nausea are common among pregnant women, especially during the first 12 weeks.

Ms McAlinden, whose due date is in May, then noticed a pea-sized lump in her neck on Christmas Day. She also realised she had lost 2st.

Caitlin McAlinden, 24, put her cancer symptoms - including a golf ball-sized lump on her neck, nausea and fatigue - down to morning sickness

Caitlin McAlinden, 24, put her cancer symptoms – including a golf ball-sized lump on her neck, nausea and fatigue – down to morning sickness

Yet she didn’t seek help immediately, instead believing the lump and sore neck was another ‘weird’ effect of pregnancy. 

When Ms McAlinden’s tiredness got worse at the start of 2024 and her lump tripled in size to that of a ‘golf ball’, she saw her GP. 

Tests then revealed the primary school teacher had stage one Hodgkin lymphoma.

Unintentional weight loss and swelling in the neck can both be tell-tale signs of the illness, Cancer Research UK says. 

However, Ms McAlinden, who was diagnosed in March, is not starting chemotherapy until after her son is born. 

She said: ‘This isn’t the pregnancy I was hoping for.

‘I haven’t felt well this entire time.

‘Everything I want to do after my baby is born has to be put on pause due to chemo.’

Ms McAlinden added: ‘My odds are really good – but having my baby will be a good distraction for everything I’m going through.’

Ms McAlinden found out she was pregnant on September 16, 2023 - after feeling nauseous at her birthday dinner the week before

Ms McAlinden found out she was pregnant on September 16, 2023 – after feeling nauseous at her birthday dinner the week before

Her partner, Connor, 27, (pictured) a procurement manager, urged her to get the lump checked out by a doctor

Her partner, Connor, 27, (pictured) a procurement manager, urged her to get the lump checked out by a doctor

She is expected to make a full recovery, although has to take a steroid injection and a blood-thinning pill every morning as part of her treatment. 

Cancer Research UK says chemo can ‘usually be given’ to women who are 14 weeks pregnant, but not before because it can harm the baby or cause a miscarriage.

Its advice states: ‘You can sometimes delay having chemotherapy until your baby is born, although this isn’t always possible.’

Ms McAlinden found out she was pregnant on September 16, after feeling nauseous at her birthday dinner the week before.

Because morning sickness usually settles by 16 to 20 weeks and can last even longer, according to the NHS, Ms McAlinden didn’t think her vomiting was strange. 

It wasn’t until Christmas Day that she first noticed a pain in her neck that led to her finding the lump.

Ms McAlinden, who is originally from Northern Ireland, said: ‘I went back to County Armagh to visit my family for Christmas.

‘I remember Christmas Day, falling asleep on the sofa and waking up with a really sore neck.

‘I thought I’d just slept funny, but I started massaging my neck. That’s when I found a lump, about the size of a pea.’

Ms McAlinden described her first trimester as 'rocky', she was vomiting at least once a day and would fall asleep intermittently throughout the day

It wasn't until Christmas Day that she first noticed the pain in her neck and after weighing herself, noticed she'd lost two stone, which can be a sign of cancer

Ms McAlinden described her first trimester as ‘rocky’, she was vomiting at least once a day and would fall asleep intermittently throughout the day. It wasn’t until Christmas Day that she first noticed the pain in her neck and after weighing herself, noticed she’d lost two stone, which can be a sign of cancer

Speaking of how her symptoms worsened, Ms McAlinden added: ‘I was so, so tired.

‘Walking up the stairs alone would make me need to go for a lie down.

‘I felt my neck again one day and the lump had become golf ball-sized.’

Her partner, Connor, 27, a procurement manager, urged her to get the lump checked out by a doctor. 

On January 2, she visited her GP and was referred for an ultrasound on her neck. 

She had a biopsy on January 16 and the clinician asked Ms McAlinden if she had any family history of Hodgkin lymphoma.

She told them one of her second cousins had gone through it years before and they urgently sent her for more blood tests.

‘My doctor’s whole demeanour changed when I said I had a family history of it,’ she said.

‘I went for a blood test on the same day.’

Two months later she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. 

The mum-to-be says her partner Connor has been her 'rock' throughout the ordeal - and the pair have since found out they're going to have a baby boy, but will be keeping his name a secret

The mum-to-be says her partner Connor has been her ‘rock’ throughout the ordeal – and the pair have since found out they’re going to have a baby boy, but will be keeping his name a secret

Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells. 

A painless swelling in a lymph node is the most common symptoms. This swelling can happen in the neck, armpit or groin, according to Cancer Research UK. 

If you have an infection lymph nodes commonly swell, but usually go back to their normal size after a short time. 

However, with lymphoma they often grow slowly and may be there for months or years before they’re noticed. But sometimes they grow very quickly.

Around 2,000 Brits are diagnosed with the cancer each year.

It can also cause shortness of breath and tiredness due to anemia from a low red blood cell count, increased risk of infections because of a low white cell count and bleeding problems such as nosebleeds and heavy periods. 

Like Ms McAlinden, many people with Hodgkin lymphoma also suffer from unintentional weight loss

When she was diagnosed in March she instantly started steroid treatment to shrink the mass on her neck.

She was told she won’t need surgery and doctors are confident she’ll be able to start chemotherapy after her due date on May 8.

Cancer Research UK explains that the placenta acts like the barrier between mums-to-be and the baby, and only some drugs can pass through this barrier. 

Chemo will stop Ms McAlinden from holding a Christening or breastfeeding, which isn’t advised due to the powerful drugs being able to pass through the milk.

She said: ‘In Catholic culture, we’re expected to christen our baby within the first few days of birth.

‘But that coincides with chemotherapy, so I can’t.

‘I really wanted to breastfeed, but chemo is stopping me from doing that, too.’

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes, which is the body’s disease-fighting network.

That network consists of the spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes and thymus gland. 

There are various types of lymphoma, but two main ones: non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin.

Both have much better prognoses than many types of cancer. 

WHAT IS HODGKIN LYMPHOMA?

Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells. It is named after Thomas Hodgkin, an English doctor who first identified the disease in 1832.  

It affects around 2,000 people each year in the UK, and 8,500 a year in the US.

Hodgkin lymphoma is most common between the ages of 20 and 24, and 75 and 79. 

Five-year survival rates:

The survival rates are much more favourable than most other cancers. 

  • Stage 1: 90%
  • Stage 2: 90%
  • Stage 3: 80%
  • Stage 4: 65% 

Symptoms include: 

  • A painless swelling in the armpits, neck and groin 
  • Heavy night sweating
  • Extreme weight loss 
  • Itching
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Coughing 

Risk factors: 

  • Lowered immunity
  • A family history of the condition
  • Smokers 
  • Those who are overweight

Treatment: 

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Steroids 
  • Stem cell or bone marrow transplants

WHAT IS NON-HODGKIN LYMPHOMA?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur anywhere in the body but is usually first noticed in the lymph nodes around sufferers’ necks.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma affects around 14,000 new people every year in the UK. In the US, more than 80,000 people are diagnosed annually.

It is more common in males than females, and it is commonly diagnosed either in a patient’s early 20s or after the age of 55. 

Five-year survival rates:

Survival can vary widely with NHL. 

The general survival rate for five years is 70 percent, and the chance of living 10 years is approximately 60 percent. 

Symptoms include:

  • Painless swellings in the neck, armpit or groin
  • Heavy night sweating
  • Unexplained weight loss of more than one-tenth of a person’s body
  • Itching

Risk factors:

  • Over 75
  • Have a weak immune system
  • Suffer from coeliac disease
  • Have a family history of the condition 
  • Have had other types of cancer

Treatment:

It depends on the number and locations of the body affected by Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Therapy typically includes chemotherapy.


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