I first met journalist now author, Elle Halliwell when we worked together at The Sunday Telegraph. Given her writing talents it was no surprise to hear that Elle was releasing her own book, A Mother’s Choice. The inspiring story centres on Elle’s diagnosis with cancer in 2016 and not long after finding out she was pregnant with her first child. It was then that she had to make the impossible choice of having life-saving cancer treatment straight away or keeping her unborn baby. I recently caught up with Elle in Sydney to chat about how she feels sharing her story, dealing with motherhood and her illness and why she doesn’t really plan too far into the future anymore.
Congratulations on your book! Tell me the inspiration behind it.
In 2016, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. Chronic myeloid leukaemia. And then two days later, I found out that I was pregnant after taking a pregnancy test at home that I had lying around. That put me in a very rare group of people when I had to decide whether to keep my baby and delay the life-saving treatment that had come onto the market only about a decade before or terminate my child and take the drugs straight away.
Me and my husband had been wanting a baby and we were planning to start trying. So for us it was a bit of a miracle that we’d fallen pregnant because we weren’t trying. For it to come at such a terrible time was quite heartbreaking. And it took a lot of time and angst trying to decide what we were going to do. But in the end, I felt that if he could survive in a body that had cancer then I had to give the baby the benefit of the doubt and continue with the pregnancy for as long as I could.
And you know, he was a strong little baby. He beat the odds, and I guess I beat the odds as well. And we both came out of it well. A few months after I had him and was just settling into motherhood, I was approached and they asked me if I’d be willing to share my story with Australia and I said sure.
It was actually really cathartic for me to revisit all of those moments and relive them. Because I think when you’re in that moment, it can be quite emotional and you often can’t look at it from a different perspective. I’m really excited to now be able to share it with everybody.
What was it like when you had to make that choice of what to do?
Oh, it was so hard.
What went through your mind?
Is this going to kill me? Will this be the last chance I have to ever have a baby? You know, how is my family going to react when I told them that I’m going to try and keep the baby. That was a tough one.
How did they react?
Everyone was so supportive, which was great. But they were all a bit scared for me. They didn’t really know much about [the cancer] and I think the unknown was quite terrifying for everybody. But they respected mine and [my husband] Nick’s choices which I really appreciate. Having the support of family and work really made me feel confident with the choice that I made.
What motivated to keep you going through such a difficult time?
My baby. I thought, if he’s strong enough to stay there and fight, then I’m strong enough to fight for him. The more I grew, the more he grew and the longer the pregnancy went. It was like, the motherhood hormones kicked in and I just became a woman on a mission. It just became a lot easier to back up my decision.
How has motherhood changed you?
I’m a completely different person. I don’t know whether that’s motherhood or also coming to terms with the cancer diagnosis. I think it’s a little bit of both. I think I’m a lot more sensitive than I was. But I’m also a lot stronger. I know myself more. I have stronger convictions, and I think that I’m more aligned with my values.
Was it hard to be so honest in your book?
Yes, it was like someone’s published my personal diary. I am really nervous about how people will respond to it. But I also feel proud of myself for pouring my heart out in these pages. And that’s just me in a nutshell. I think every one of my family members who has read the books says it’s me. It’s written very authentically. So I’m really proud of that.
How are you today?
I’ve reached a major molecular response, which is where the cancer levels are so low they’re nearly undetectable. So 0.0051. And that’s down from about I think 27 or 29 percent. So that’s kind of the percent of cancer cells that was in my body at any time. So that’s a real relief that the medication’s working.
Do you have to continue treatment?
Every three months I go to the doctor and I get tested. And every time I go I’m hopeful that I’m going to get [the result of] undetectable. And I haven’t yet. So that’s a bit disappointing. But I think this is my year where it’s going to be undetectable. And then once that happens then I can start to look forward to maybe trying to go off the drugs. That’s the plan.
Oh that’s amazing. You’re such an inspiration. I think this book is going to be such an inspiring story for everyone.
I hope so. I think it’s like, anyone who’s been a mum and has had cancer or even had someone who has cancer can relate to some of the feelings.
How do you juggle having a career and being a mum to a toddler?
It’s hard, as you know too well. And especially the days where I’m just so exhausted. The medication knocks me around a bit. But I’ve got great support. From family and friends and things like that. And I know my limits better now. If I’m overexerting myself I just have to stop. Those days where you just really start to feel like you can cope with it. You look at them or they do something that’s just so cute. They give you a hug or a kiss and it gives you this boost of energy and love and it makes it feel like everything is worth it.
You’ve had an amazing career on top of all of this, what has been your biggest career highlight?
I think it must be launching this book. It’s something that I never thought that I’d ever do. So that’s been really great. I mean, the circumstances around it aren’t ideal but I still feel it’s an achievement. Especially considering how I was feeling writing it. I think there’s so much more that I want to do. I I’m studying naturopathy and health coaching.
Tell me a bit about that.
Oh, I absolutely love it. It’s really tough, learning anatomy and physiology is just a whole new world for me. But it’s amazing. And I’m learning so much more about my own health, my own body. And I want to use that as a launch pad to make sure that me and my family are as healthy as possible. But also hopefully to be able to share what I’ve learnt with other women who are dealing with an illness or chronic illness and a new baby or dealing with motherhood and trying to balance that. And also maintain their own health and wellbeing.
Is that something that you want to focus more on, even though you’ve still got your career in journalism?
I’d love to be able to write a bit more about health and wellness. I’m going to hopefully use my writing and journalism skills but I just wanted to have a foundation of knowledge. And of course I love entertainment and fashion. It’s always going to be a big passion of mine. But this is a whole new world that’s opened up for me. Who knows if I can balance it all, if I can juggle it all, but you have to try, right?
What’s your number one styling tip? Especially for being a busy mum.
Having a great foundation wardrobe is key.
What’s in that foundation wardrobe?
It’s all very basic. I’ve pretty much got a uniform now. I’m a big fan of the uniform, and it’s generally a white or a blue shirt and black pants or black jeans. And the same colour t-shirts of grey, white and black. I really just interchange them all during the week. It just takes one more choice out of your day. So you don’t really have to think about it. Myy biggest mum hack is just having a really neutral wardrobe so that you can shop and change without walking out of the house and going oh my gosh, why am I wearing a green T-shirt with pink pants?!
What’s your key wardrobe essential?
A grey cashmere jumper.
What advice would you give if you met someone who was going down the same path as you were?
Accept help when it’s offered. That was one thing. I thought that I was invincible and that I didn’t need any help. But I did. And people are so willing to help you when you need it. So just say yes. Let people do your washing, you know, when you’re still in shock about being diagnosed. And let them make your dinner.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
Five years’ time I see myself hopefully with another baby.
Is that on the horizon at all?
Maybe. If I can get down to undetectable that would be the dream…
It’s highly encouraged [to get down to undetectable] because the outcome of patients who stay on the medication longer have a better chance. So the longer I wait, the better. But you know, biological clock is also ticking, so we’ll have to figure it out. I might be able to try and go off them, and then have a baby and go back on them if my levels go up again. So it’s all very much a juggle. We’ll just have to take it as it comes.
But to be honest, I don’t look that far ahead anymore. I used to always think in 10 years’ time what am I going to be doing? And now I live very much week to week, month to month. And I think that’s what happens when all of a sudden your life can suddenly just go out of your hands. So I just feel a lot less in control of my destiny, and not in a bad way. But I’m just very much willing to just leave it in the hands of the universe.
We went to: Cafe Sydney
We drank: Signature Ice Teas
We ate: Cured salmon belly, bug tail, crispy salmon skin, avocado, finger lime, salmon roe; Green salad with pear, herbs, olive oil and verjuice
Elle wore Zimmerman top and pants
Kate wore a Uniqlo top and Camilla and Marc vest.