It should have been one of the happiest times of his life… but an “unthinkably cruel” illness would tear his world apart.
Pete Wallroth’s wife Mair was 19 weeks pregnant with their second child and had everything to live for. Her breast cancer diagnosis of her changed all that in an instant.
The disease spread to her brain and Mair, 41, died just 10 weeks after the birth of son Merlin. Pete was left a single father to the tot and three-year-old daughter, Martha.
The family’s story is heartbreaking. But, sadly, it is not uncommon.
Two UK women a day are diagnosed with cancer either during pregnancy or post-natally, equating to one in every 1,000 pregnant women. And it is why Pete founded the Mummy’s Star charity to build a support network that would help other families like his.
Pete, 42, said: “The support Mair received was unmatched. That was probably the seed for Mummy’s Star.
“We connect people so they feel less alone, we are a support network and advocacy service for our families.
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“We signpost to agencies who can help and provide grants and personalized help. We give them validation that all their feelings and experiences are understood.”
Mair died in December 2012. Mummy’s Star was set up the following year and has supported more than 1,500 women hit by cancer while pregnant or within 12 months of giving birth.
Pete added: “Pregnancy is so sacred that being diagnosed with cancer while carrying a child feels unthinkably cruel.
“Because of that it is isolating – people don’t want to think about it.
“Mair was told she had cancer in June 2012, when she was 19 weeks pregnant.
“She mentioned to the midwife she’d noticed a dull ache in her left breast. She was quickly referred and diagnosed straight after her 20-week scan with a large and aggressive tumor.”
Mair’s breast cancer was deemed to be curable and she had chemo before giving birth at 37 weeks. But the cancer spread to the lining of her brain and she declined rapidly within a couple of months.
Pete said: “She struggled with dehydration, her eyesight was blurry and she kept losing her balance.
“It was affecting her optic nerve. Very quickly she could n’t talk or sing but I would lay Merlin on her chest and her physical presence would soothe him.
“Before she lost speech, when she knew she was terminally ill, Mair had said, ‘Well, if it’s my purpose in life to give birth to two beautiful children, then so be it and I’ll die happy’.
“It was devastating. Martha was three-and-a-half. I helped her to understand that Mum got so sick she wasn’t going to come home. After the initial shock we just got into a routine.
“For those years as a single dad there was no one to curl up with on the sofa. I was seeing the kids off to school for the first time on my own. Those moments were all hard.
“Since we lost Mair I have channeled my experiences into positives. In my work I want people to know that the pregnant body is not immune to illness and new symptoms should not be dismissed as part and parcel of pregnancy. It’s a twee rhyme but ‘if in doubt, check it out’.
“A referral can be made by a GP, midwife or a sonographer – just tell someone what you are experiencing.
“And if the worst happens and cancer does interrupt your pregnancy, we are here to provide guidance and support to help women to gain as much control and comfort as they can.”
Pete has found happiness again with second wife Nicola, who he married in 2019 and calls a “pillar of patience and strength”.
The couple live in Derbyshire and have a son, Flynn, who is four.
Pete said: “Mair isn’t physically here as their mummy, but Martha and Merlin know she is always there in spirit.
“Equally they, collectively with their brother Flynn, have an amazing mum in Nic, who embraces everything that has impacted our lives before. We are a loving family of five, Martha and Merlin’s mummy is remembered with every passing day.
“I cannot underestimate the power of seeking help. I wonder sometimes how I would have coped without it. I want Mummy’s Star to be that help for families like mine.”
Mummy’s Star is hoping to reach more mums and families than ever before this year. To find out more and donate, visit mummysstar.org/donate.
So hard to be brave and a good mum
Antonia Skinner sought help immediately when she suffered breast pain while expecting her second child.
Her sister was having treatment for breast cancer and Antonia, 41, carried the same BRCA2 gene that leaves women vulnerable to cancer.
Antonia, of Crawley, West Sussex, said: “If you feel something isn’t right, discuss it with someone and don’t just accept the response that ‘It’s pregnancy related’.”
She also tells how Mummy’s Star helped her, adding: “Emilia, arrived on June 2, 2020, and barely a week later I had a bilateral mastectomy. Two weeks after that, I was having chemo. I felt so much guilt. I saw all the mums with their babies and thought Emilia has been so unlucky getting me.
“I remember texting Mummy’s Star in a car park and getting it all off my chest. People would say I was strong. The energy it consumed to be brave and a good mum was so hard.”
I got breast cancer after mastectomy
Kate Pistilli overcame breast cancer before having children and was horrified when it returned during her second pregnancy.
She said: “At four months pregnant I found a lump during a monthly check. I was in shock and thought ‘How can I have breast cancer again when I have no breasts?’
“But even with a double mastectomy there is no guarantee there wasn’t even just one cell left behind to misbehave.”
The mum-of-two, 33, from St Ives, Cornwall, added: “I had two surgeries while pregnant and two weeks after my daughter was born I had radiotherapy every day for a month. I felt robbed of my pregnancy experience.
“Speaking to a Mummy’s Star peer support worker over the phone really helped. I was connected with someone who had cancer in pregnancy themselves and knew what I was going through.”
Sweet angel was sent to save my life
Sarah Newman, 37, faced a harrowing decision when diagnosed with cervical cancer at 19 weeks pregnant.
An inoperable 5.5cm tumor on her cervix could only be treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy – meaning terminating her pregnancy with son Jacob.
Sarah’s first child was only two at the time. She said: “I kept looking at my son and thinking how can I take away his mum if I don’t give myself the best chance to live.
“While we made this terrible, terrible choice, we were physically and mentally supported by Mummy’s Star every step of the way. Me and my husband faced the most heartbreaking decision.
“We had connected with Jacob, we loved him, I’d felt him move and seen him on scan pictures. He was already part of us.
“We believe this baby was sent to give me a message. Without him we may never have known about cancer. He is my guardian angel.”
Jolt just days before I got news of baby
Rebecca Berry was 30 when she found out she was pregnant, just days after being diagnosed with lymphoma.
She said: “I found a lump in my neck.
“Initially my cancer appeared to regress but when I was 29 weeks it came back aggressively. I was induced early and Lara was born at 36 weeks. I started chemo when she was 15 days old.
“Becoming a mum at the same time as being diagnosed felt like we had been given this family fight. Lara and my husband came to my chemo appointments, we dozed in a private room together in our baby bubble while I had treatment. There was no way I was leaving her behind.”
Rebecca’s cancer didn’t respond to chemo or radiotherapy but a stem cell transplant from her sister in August 2021 was a success.
Now the mum from Guildford, Surrey, has a scan every three months and is grateful for the support she received from Mummy’s Star.