SMILING as Rose, eight, strokes her growing bump, Catherine Reeve looks like any other excited mother looking forward to welcoming a new arrival into the family.
But the everyday family scene is especially poignant as Catherine, 39, was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer five years ago.
When Catherine was told it was a glioblastoma, it came as an “utter shock”, after doctors put the teacher’s symptoms of headaches and vomiting down to stress and depression.
Before Catherine became ill, she and husband Steve, 44, were trying for another child to complete their family.
Doctors advised her against carrying on due to her treatment. She discussed the idea of having her eggs frozen but decided against it in case it delayed her treatment and recovery.
The devoted mother faced a heart-breaking dilemma, as she took on the most common aggressive brain tumour in adults – which affects 2,200 people a year in England.
“Doctors said I could possibly still get pregnant and I dearly wanted Rose to have a sibling but I also felt guilty that another child would be left without a mother,” said Catherine from Chelmsford.
Now joy and sadness go hand-in-hand as Catherine is expecting another daughter in October.
“We weren’t even sure if I could conceive after chemotherapy and I feel so blessed to be pregnant,” said the mum.
“But since my diagnosis, we’ve had such a tough, painful time that it’s almost like I’ve been scared to allow myself to be happy, I haven’t bought anything for the baby yet, although I’m in my third trimester.
“Steve said to me, ‘you’ve got to let yourself start enjoying your pregnancy', and now I’m finally allowing myself to get excited. This baby gives us hope and something joyous and positive to focus on.
“I still can’t quite take it in that I’m pregnant with the baby I’ve wanted for so long. It feels like a miracle.”
And Rose is thrilled about becoming a big sister, after Catherine and Steve decided to tell her early.
“We sat down with Rose and said we had some good news.” said Catherine.
“I told her that I was pregnant and that she was going to have a little brother or sister. Her little face just lit up and she kept looking from me to Steve.
“She asked if we knew what sex the baby was and when we told her we didn’t yet, said, ‘I want a sister – baby boys are smelly!’”
Rose’s wish came true when the 20-week scan revealed the baby was a girl.
Catherine found out she was expecting the day before Valentine’s Day.
“I did a pregnancy test and couldn’t believe it when it said two/three weeks pregnant,” said Catherine.
“I came downstairs – Rose had her headphones on dancing away at a Zoom party and I asked Steve if he’d bought alcohol for Valentine’s Day.
“He said he’d bought me wine and I replied I wouldn’t be able to drink it.”
Aside from increased epilepsy medication, Catherine hasn’t had any other complications in her pregnancy.
“My medical team have been so supportive,” said Catherine.
“I had a scan in January 2021 just before I knew I was pregnant and I had another in May in my second trimester when they didn’t use the contrast dye, and both were stable.
“I’ll be having an elective Caesarean section in mid-October.”
Now Catherine is sharing her story through The Brain Tumour Charity to support its world-first UK trial of cannabis-based drug Sativex in treating glioblastoma.
The Brain Tumour Charity needs to raise £450,000 to fund the new phase II trial – backed by Olympic gold medallist Tom Daley whose dad died from brain cancer in 2011.
“Brain cancer is such a harsh disease and I am so angry at how under-funded it is – research is everything,” said Catherine.
“I am backing The Brain Tumour Charity’s Sativex trial because it is the first glimmer of hope in glioblastoma research for over 20 years.
“Being diagnosed with a glioblastoma and told there is no cure and you have 12-18 months to live was an utter shock.
“This trial finally gives the people a glint of hope of precious extra time to live – for people like me to see their children grow up, to spend more time with their families, making memories.”
Sativex – hope of ‘extra time to live’
A major UK trial of cannabis-based drug Sativex in treating the most aggressive form of brain tumour is to launch at 15 NHS hospitals, following promising results from a phase I study in 27 patients.
The new phase II trial, to be funded by The Brain Tumour Charity, will assess whether adding Sativex (an oral spray containing cannabinoids THC and CBD) to chemotherapy could extend life for thousands diagnosed with a recurrent glioblastoma, which currently has an average survival of less than 10 months.
The drug — already used in treating multiple sclerosis — was found to be tolerable in combination with chemotherapy, with the potential to extend survival, in a phase I trial in glioblastomas earlier this year.
While the phase I study observed that more patients were alive after one year in the Sativex arm compared to the placebo arm, the study was not sufficiently powered to show survival impact.
The new three-year phase II trial (ARISTOCRAT), led by Professor Susan Short at the University of Leeds and co-ordinated by the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Birmingham, is due to begin recruiting over 230 patients across all UK nations in early 2022, subject to sufficient funds being raised.
Dr David Jenkinson, Interim CEO at The Brain Tumour Charity, which is funding the Sativex trial, said: “We hope this trial could pave the way for a long-awaited new lifeline that could help offer glioblastoma patients precious extra months to live and make memories with their loved ones.
“With so few treatments available and average survival still so heartbreakingly short, thousands affected by a glioblastoma in the UK each year are in urgent need of new options and new hope.
“But we also know that for many this trial won’t come soon enough. In the meantime, while other cannabis-based products may help alleviate symptoms, there is insufficient evidence to recommend their use to help treat brain tumours. For anyone considering using cannabis-based products or other complementary therapies, it’s vital that you discuss these with your medical team first, as they could interact with other treatments such as anti-epileptic medicines or steroids.
“Anyone affected by a glioblastoma can speak to us for support and information on 0808 800 0004 or by emailing [email protected] If you need someone to talk to, we’re here for you.”
Catherine’s nightmare started five years ago when she started suffering headaches when she was an assistant head at a primary school.
“My colleague noticed I was having bad headaches every day and suggested I go to the doctor,” she said.
“Then I started getting sick. I remember it was a ‘meet the teacher’ day and I had to rush to the loo to throw up.”
Her mum took her to the GP who diagnosed depression and prescribed anti-depressants.
Eventually a scan revealed a mass on her brain, and she was sent to Queen’s Hospital, Romford for a more detailed MRI scan, before going through an awake craniotomy to remove 97 per cent of the tumour.
Two weeks after surgery, she had an even more devastating blow when biopsy results revealed she had a glioblastoma.
“Nothing can prepare you for being given a terminal diagnosis – it didn’t feel real,” said Catherine.
“I kept thinking, Why me? What had I done to make this happen? God must really hate me.
“And what hurt most was knowing I was hurting my family.It took a long time to work through my feelings.”
Poignantly, as a new life grows inside Catherine, she knows she has the painful process of saying goodbye to her little girls ahead of her.
“Maybe I’ll write letters or make videos for their life milestones when I can’t be with them. But I’m not at that place yet – I’ll know when I am.
“And Steve and I aren’t ready yet to talk about what happens when I’m not here – but we know the day will come.”
Most of all, she feels blessed to give Rose the most precious gift of all.
“It means the world to me that Rose will have a sister when I’m gone and I know my girls will be OK with Steve as their dad,” said Catherine.
“Every time I see her excited little face as she pats my bump or talks to the baby. it feels like I’ve made the right decision.”
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