A marathon runner who needed fertility treatment after harrowing surgery for cervical cancer at just 31 has named her miracle baby after her IVF doctor.
Emma Davis, 39, had just run the London Marathon in April 2013 when abnormal bleeding in between periods alerted her to other unusual symptoms, prompting her to see her GP.
A local children’s services officer for the council, Emma had missed a cervical smear and, also experiencing back pain, weight loss, abnormal discharge and bleeding after sex, she was referred to a specialist.
Needing extensive surgery to remove her cervix and lymph nodes after cancer was diagnosed, Emma and her now husband, Rob, 43, a YMCA charity worker, sought help after two years of failing to fall pregnant.
Now proud parents to Willow Grace, 11 weeks, conceived after a single round of IVF, Emma, who lives near Gatwick Airport, West Sussex, said: “After falling pregnant on our first round of IVF, we just felt so incredibly lucky.
“We called our baby Grace after our doctors, but her name also represents a message of hope to us.”
She added: “She is our miracle baby and I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to her every day, as she really is our ray of sunshine after some very grey times.”
Emma received her shocking cancer diagnosis after running the London marathon in April 2013, when some abnormal bleeding caused her to consider other strange symptoms she had been experiencing, ranging from weight loss to bleeding after sex.
“I thought, ‘This just isn’t right,’ and saw my GP,” she said.
She continued: “They did my screening there and then and the nurse told me she thought she could see a polyp.”
Referred through the NHS two-week cancer pathway, Emma was seen at the women’s clinic at Crawley Hospital, where a consultant told her he was shocked by her symptoms as she was “far too young”.
Opting for private treatment in the July after doctors saw something on her cervix – as she had private health insurance and felt it would be a quicker route – she said: “I saw Mr Butler-Manuel, who worked at Nuffield Health Guildford Hospital in Surrey.”
Emma continued: “I had a biopsy, which revealed I did have cervical cancer and in August I had surgery to remove it.
“It wasn’t a surprise as I had symptoms. But it isn’t nice to hear you’ve got cancer at the age of 31.
“I never thought it would happen to me, but I remembered the story of Jade Goody, the reality TV star who died at 27 with cervical cancer, as it had been in the news and she was so young.”
She added: “I didn’t know anybody my age who had cancer but, because of her, I was aware that type of cancer did happen to young women.”
Knowing she wanted a family, Emma wanted to do all she could to protect her fertility.
Already living with Rob, who she had met through work in 2011, the couple started discussing their thoughts about children – prompted by her diagnosis.
“I needed to know that Rob wanted to have children too,” she said. “My doctor was focused on fertility-sparing treatment.”
Luckily, Emma did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy, so she did not have to freeze her eggs.
But her surgery lasted nearly seven hours, as her cervix, surrounding tissue and lymph nodes were removed and an abdominal stitch was put in place.
“The operation was quite brutal,” she said. “It was done robotically, by a tool called a DaVinci robot.
“I had quite an aggressive form of cancer – invasive adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
“It was large, measuring 1.7cm, and there was a chance it could come back within five years. I went on to have two scares in that period, but luckily it didn’t return.”
After recovering from her operation, by 2017, Emma and Rob were ready to begin their family.
But when they failed to conceive after two years – which Emma believes was due to her having cancer – in February 2020 they began preparing for their first round of IVF.
She said: “We do think our difficulty conceiving was linked, as blood tests found nothing else wrong with me or Rob.”
Emma continued: “I had scar tissue on my cervix, which our specialist said could have prevented us from falling pregnant.
“I also developed endometriosis – where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places and which can affect fertility – as a result of the cancer surgery.”
Fortunately, after one round of IVF on the NHS, at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, in October 2020, Willow Grace was conceived.
Emma said: “We feel incredibly lucky. We were told we only had a 20 per cent chance of falling pregnant, because of my age – being near 40 – and my cancer.
“I never thought it would happen on our first try given all the complications.”
Also told she was at high risk of premature delivery, despite being able to feel Willow moving around inside her, she hardly dared to believe she was real.
“Even though I could feel her kicking it just never felt real,” she said.
“I was considered high-risk, as I didn’t have a cervix, and Willow was held in place by the stitch.
“Happily, it was an incredibly good stitch – and she stayed in until 39 weeks.”
Emma also has two bleeding disorders – a factor 12 deficiency and an unclassified condition – meaning she is at risk of haemorrhaging during surgery.
Because of this, the couple were transferred to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south west London, where the haemophilia centre looked after their antenatal care and Willow’s delivery, by planned Caesarean.
Emma said: “It wasn’t safe for me to have an epidural, as I could have bled around my spine and been paralysed.”
She added: “Being under anaesthetic wasn’t ideal as it meant so many things were out of our control, but at least Rob was allowed to be there.
“And the staff at St George’s were brilliant. We still got a say over our birth preferences – like who delivered Willow and who handed her to me when I woke up.
“Rob was there to hold her as soon as she was born, even though I couldn’t be.”
Overwhelmed with gratitude, the couple knew immediately that they wanted to choose a baby name to honour their doctors.
Emma said: “The whole team were so calm and professional, yet so friendly, understanding and supportive. We have been blown away by this positive experience.”
They picked the middle name Grace after their fertility expert Dr Jan Grace, and the cancer surgeon who helped preserve Emma’s fertility, Mr Butler-Manuel, as the charity he co-runs, funding research into gynaecological cancers and hospital equipment, is also named Grace.
“Dr Grace gave us her time to ask questions and was very knowledgeable, caring and empathetic,” said Emma.
“We felt it was a sign. The name Grace has such a special meaning to us, so we settled on it very quickly. It was as much about naming her after the doctors, as it was about people having hope.
“Despite the journey we’ve been on and the struggles we’ve been through, it is possible to fall pregnant first time with IVF. This is our journey and proof that it can actually happen.”
She added: “People should never give up hope as miracles do happen. We were and are incredibly lucky to have Willow Grace.”
Eternally grateful to those who helped them to become parents, every day Emma spends with her daughter feels like a gift.
She said: “She is a smiley, chatty, active and alert baby who already keeps us on our toes and brings us so much joy.”
She continued: “We look at her each day as we’re cuddling her and feel very fortunate, emotional and truly blessed that she is ours and here with us.
“We’re looking forward to her first Christmas and birthday already.
“We can’t wait to spend the rest of our lives creating memories with her and watching her learn and grow.”
Her proud father, Rob, is equally delighted to have Willow Grace in their lives.
He said: “As soon as Willow was born, she was so alert and active. She loves to know what’s going on around her.
“She also loves fairy lights, so Christmas will be an absolute treat for her.”
He added: “We can’t wait for things like her first birthday and taking her to see more of our family and friends.”
Meanwhile, the little girl was an unexpected gift for Dr Jan Grace, clinical director of women’s services at Guy’s and St Thomas’.
She said: “We are delighted with the birth of baby Willow Grace, who arrived on my birthday!
“It was such a pleasure for our multidisciplinary team to look after Emma and Rob and support them during their time with us at the ACU.”