Real Life

Katrina had a miracle baby after her bowel cancer diagnosis

How a pioneering Australian medical treatment gave Katrina a chance at motherhood.

Katrina’s dreams were always big, but uncomplicated. Or so she thought. She wanted a baby, and a home with a yard and room for a swing set. Having grown up in the Yarra Valley, a green swathe of Victoria known for its vineyards, her vision of an idyllic childhood meant space and fresh air. She was 23 when she met a kindred spirit in then 27-year-old Steve Kirk and began to feel that her ambitions were within her grasp.

“He was a little nerdy, but cute,” Katrina recalls warmly. “We never got off the phone.”

One of their first dates played out like something Nora Ephron might cook up to show that the heroes of a romantic comedy belong together: Steve had wanted to take Katrina to a yoghurt shop he thought she’d like, but they arrived to discover it was closed. Instead, they sat in the dark car park until they realised they’d talked the night away.

“We just chatted all night,” says Katrina. “It felt like we’d always known each other.”

Newborn Layla with her parents Katrina and Steve.
Steve and Katrina with newborn Layla.

Katrina had worn her heart on her sleeve from the start: She wanted a relationship, not a fling, and she wanted children. At the beginning of 2015, Steve made a big decision. He booked a room at Melbourne’s five-star Crown Metropol and enlisted the help of the staff to plan a proposal. When Katrina opened the door to their room, she saw a trail of rose petals leading to the bed where the diamond ring was sitting.

“My ears just closed over. I can’t remember what he said, but I said, ‘Oh! Of course!’” she remembers.

By springtime they had bought a house with a magnolia tree out the front, violets in the garden and a yard with space for swings. As she was preparing to move, Katrina had a routine health check. She had lost a little weight, but she wasn’t feeling unwell. She saw the doctor to satisfy her mum. Katrina’s father had died of bowel cancer when he was 30, and her mother was adamant that both Katrina and her older sister, Skye, remain vigilant. “We both got tested to be safe, but I didn’t think anything of it,” Katrina says.

When she woke up from her colonoscopy, the nurse said the doctor wanted to speak with her. “I just thought it was protocol,” she adds.

The two sisters went to see the doctor together. “I’ll never forget it,” Katrina tells The Weekly. “I walked in, and he grabbed my hand and said, ‘I’m so sorry, we found something.’ I could not hear him. My ears closed over again. I couldn’t hear a word he said.”

“I don’t want to die,” she told Skye.

In the immediate aftermath, confusion reigned. Katrina had to ask the nurse to repeat everything the doctor had said because she hadn’t absorbed it. Skye spirited Katrina to her mother’s house, where Katrina’s phone started to ring.

“It was just phone call after phone call after phone call,” Katrina says. “We’ve booked you in for a CT scan. Next phone call: We’ve booked you in for an MRI. They just kept coming.”

Katrina had stage three bowel cancer. She would need surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy with a medication that was fiercely toxic. But before the aggressive treatment regime began, Katrina’s doctor had an important question for her and Steve: Did they want to have children?

“I said, ‘Yes! I’ve always wanted to be a mum’,” Katrina remembers.

The doctor gave her three weeks to preserve her future fertility, and then she would need to begin chemo. “I just thought, ‘This can’t be happening’,” Katrina says. But she didn’t hesitate.

She booked an appointment at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital where she and the team decided they would freeze some of Katrina’s eggs and some embryos.

“It was just bang-bang-bang,” Katrina says. “In the end, they froze three embryos and five eggs. So, we had eight chances.”

There was one more thing Katrina’s doctors did – and it sounds drastic.

They removed Katrina’s left ovary, sliced it into 225 pieces  and froze the tissue. If the frozen eggs and embryos didn’t work, the frozen ovarian tissue would give Katrina and Steve a shot at a remarkable new treatment which Australian doctors had helped pioneer.

At the time, Katrina didn’t fully grasp the significance of her ovarian tissue being frozen. Her mind was full of cancer and her father. “In my head, that’s what was happening to me. ‘I’m dying. I’m going to die’,” she says.

With safeguards in place for her future, she was able to start fighting the cancer. She had her first round of treatment the day after her fertility surgery. It was Christmas Eve. Her treatment started with six strong chemo tablets a day, then intravenous chemotherapy, then radiation. In April, she had surgery to remove the tumour in her bowel. Then it was back into hospital for more chemo. The regime was gruelling. She had panic attacks. The chemo did strange things to her body.

“You couldn’t touch or drink anything cold. It would be like razor blades,” she says. At one point, she lost all feeling in her legs. “All through chemo I would cry myself to sleep with Steve holding me … I was so scared I was going to die in my sleep.”

After her surgery, Katrina had to wear a colostomy bag, but she and Steve moved through this difficult time together with tenderness and humour.

One time, Steve came in to help her change her bag with a peg on his nose. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, baby. I love you so much, but I can’t do this. It just burns your nose.’ It broke the ice. ‘Do you want a peg as well?’ he added. ‘I got you a peg’.”

Katrina laughs as she tells the story. It is, we agree, a rare thing in life to find someone who can make you giggle at such a dark time. “He’s seen me so vulnerable,” she adds.

Katrina was rushed in to hospital for an emergency caesarean after her waters broke, as natural birth would be too dangerous.

As she faced more chemo, Katrina wanted something to look forward to, so they set a wedding date and began to make plans.

Happily, while this process unfolded, Katrina went into full remission. She and Steve were married in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges in September 2018.

“We always said: We can take on anything now – anything you throw at us,” she says. But what they were about to embark upon would test them in an entirely different way.

Steve and Katrina had to wait a little while before they could think about starting their family, but in 2019 they were ready. The radiation had put Katrina into early menopause, so she began having oestrogen injections in preparation for her first embryo transfer. When the first round didn’t work, she accepted the outcome with grace. “I thought, okay. How often does it work first round?”

Unfortunately, round two also failed. They had only one embryo remaining, and five frozen eggs. Katrina was growing fretful about their dwindling chances. She contacted Melbourne IVF fertility specialist Associate Professor Kate Stern who took over her care for round three, which also failed.

Then she received a crushing email that said her remaining eggs could not be used. Katrina’s devastation was total. “I was an emotional mess,” she says. Everything she’d been through seemed to be for nothing. “I thought: We’ve got nothing … This is it. It’s all over.”

Associate Professor Stern hadn’t lost faith, however. There was one more hope: Katrina’s frozen ovarian tissue. “We still didn’t fully understand what the tissue was about,” Katrina says. But Associate Professor Stern believed it might give Katrina and Steve the baby they so dearly wanted.

What they were embarking upon together was truly incredible. Associate Professor Stern was one of the pioneers of ovarian tissue grafts in Australia. She and other groups working concurrently around the world had discovered that it was possible to preserve ovarian tissue, freeze it and then reanimate it by placing it back in the body.

“This is the crazy thing,” Associate Professor Stern says, explaining that each piece of ovarian tissue is about the size of a fingernail. When thawed and placed back in the body, they can once again produce eggs. “The body is such a dynamic thing! The little, tiny blood vessels come up from the body into that tissue and give it a blood flow and it starts to work. It is amazing. [The ovarian tissue] starts to make hormones and it will drive itself to make those eggs mature and start going through ovulation.”

The first time she saw the procedure work, she says: “It was a rush of blood to the head.”

In November 2013, Associate Professor Stern had announced the world’s first-ever birth as a result of ovarian grafting to the abdominal wall: Twin girls. There have since been about a dozen more births in Australia. She felt sure that Katrina had the potential to be the next miracle mother.

The ovarian graft, however, meant more surgery, and Katrina admits she was scared. As she lay on the operating table, about to go under again, Associate Professor Stern held her hand. “She said, ‘I will take care of you.’ And she held my hand until I was out,” Katrina explains.

The operation was a success and when it was time, Katrina went to the hospital for another egg retrieval. Despite all the promising signs, the medical team was unable to retrieve any eggs.

After having bowel cancer, Katrina didn't know if she would be able to have a baby.

Katrina was heartbroken but she said, “Go again.” And again. And again.

“We did nine egg cycles back-to-back,” Katrina explains. When Associate Professor Stern said: “I think we need to add more tissue,” Katrina went back into surgery.

As Katrina put her body through repeated rounds of punishing treatment, she was continually asked if she wanted to slow down or take a break. Katrina wanted to press on.

“[The] tissue only has so much life in it,” she says. “It could be a week, it could be a year, two years, it could be a month, you don’t know.” She didn’t want to lose her chance.

She had her second ovarian tissue transplant, then she rested for three months and began another egg collection cycle. This round also returned no eggs. Katrina’s hope was waning.

Then finally, some good news.

“I had four eggs. I was beside myself, in tears of happiness,” Katrina says. And from those four eggs, they were finally left with one viable embryo.

Everything was riding on one small speck in a petri dish.

The cluster of cells was implanted and once again Katrina and Steve were sent home to wait. The days dragged. Finally, Katrina went to have a pregnancy test and waited nervously for the results.

“My heart was pounding,” she says. Her phone began to rattle. “The nurses always call for the results on a normal number. This was a private number.”

She answered the phone to hear Associate Professor Stern’s ecstatic voice: “We’ve got it, we’ve got it!”

Katrina cried. “I said, ‘Thank you so, so much’.” Even now, retelling the tale, Katrina’s emotions bubble up. Her eyes sparkle with tears. “It was amazing. But I didn’t want to move.” The life inside her felt so fragile, so precious. She was terrified something would go wrong.

Miracle baby, Layla.
Layla “didn’t like being born” jokes her mum, but has grown into a cheerful, smiley girl, and Katrina and Steve couldn’t be happier.

Five weeks later, she had an ultrasound. As she lay back, watching the monitor, Katrina’s pulse began to race. Then suddenly a heartbeat filled the room, fast and mighty. “We just burst into tears,” Katrina says. “It was what we’d always wanted. It was the best news ever.”

Still, ongoing complications from Katrina’s treatment meant that she was put on strict bedrest. The birth was to be a scheduled caesarean early on December 9, 2022.

On the evening of December 8, Katrina went to bed feeling excited. She couldn’t get comfortable and as she moved, she felt a pop! Her water had broken. They hurried to hospital, knowing a natural birth could be dangerous for Katrina and their baby.

Katrina was rushed in for an emergency caesarean. After years, it was suddenly happening.

“I heard [the doctor] say, ‘Hello, beautiful’,” Katrina says. The doctor lifted up a pink baby and someone exclaimed, “Look at all that hair!”

A nurse handed Katrina a tiny baby girl. Steve wrapped his arm around his wife and his daughter, overjoyed to see them both safe. They named their little miracle Layla.

“We always said: We can take on anything now – anything you throw at us.”

Katrina Kirk.

Layla weighed about three kilos when she was born, and she had a powerful set of lungs. “She did not like being born,” Katrina laughs. But the cry was music to her ears.

Associate Professor Stern says when Katrina first came to see her, she had been told that becoming a mother was “a complete impossibility” because of the radiation to her pelvis. Katrina, however, did not want to believe it.

“Katrina is an extraordinary woman. She did put a lot of faith in us but also she understood each step. She was a partner in every step.”

Today, Associate Professor Stern is working to ensure every single Australian facing serious illness knows that they have options to have a family in the future. She says that globally, only about 20 per cent of people have access to that information. The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, where Associate Professor Stern is head of fertility preservation, has set up the National Ovarian and Testicular Tissue Transport and Cryopreservation Service, which receives and stores tissue from all over the country.

“If you’re in Darwin, and you’re going to have treatment, your doctor can get a piece of your ovary and we’ll get it transported to our unit and we’ll look after it,” she says.

As The Weekly wraps up our interview, Layla babbles to announce she would like to get out of her cot, and Steve brings her into the Kirks’ loungeroom – now filled with colourful toys. She weighs a healthy eight kilos and is a very smiley, happy little girl.

Despite the long nights and heartache, Katrina says she would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Layla laughs and Katrina kisses her daughter’s soft, pink cheek.

“I still pinch myself that we have her,” she says.

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