Chesterfield cancer survivors’ ‘miracle’ children

The Hawkins family of Hasland, Chesterfield. L-r is Michelle, Xander 6, Arthur 5 and James who survived testicular cancer and went on to have the two boys.
The Hawkins family of Hasland, Chesterfield. L-r is Michelle, Xander 6, Arthur 5 and James who survived testicular cancer and went on to have the two boys.

Against all odds, and having battled cancer together, there was little hope Michelle and James Hawkins could have children – now they call little Alexander and Arthur their pair of miracles.

The couple of Rempstone Drive, Chesterfield, have told of the traumatic first few years of their marriage – spending their honeymoon period in and out of major surgeries and chemotherapy only to be told they might never conceive.

Friends since their school days, the Hawkins had only just got engaged in 1999 when 38-year-old James, commercial director of Western Special Fasteners in Dronfield, was first diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“James proposed to me on the eve of the millennium and less than a week later we found out,” said wife Michelle, also 38, who works at the government’s Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton.

“We thought he was either too old or two young – we weren’t aware that he was a prime age to be at risk of cancer, so it was a huge shock.”

James had an orchiectomy in January 2000 and was quickly given the all clear.

It was a no-brainer to part with one of his testicles, he said.

“I thought the cancer was caught in time and it would all be over after that, so it was a small price to pay,” he added.

But then James got another lump which turned out to be a tumour on the back of his stomach, requiring an incredibly high-risk operation at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield.

“The doctors had to go in through the front, removing all his organs to get out the tumour, and then replace them. It was so scary.”

The pair didn’t know if James would make it, and having to go through chemotherapy again afterwards would put him at serious risk of being made sterile.

“We had to store some sperm before his chemotherapy in case we wanted children later in life, or if anything happened to James I would have it on standby.

“But the most important thing for us was that James was okay if it meant it was just the two of us then we would be enough for each other.”

The couple were already in the middle of planning their wedding and James was still suffering from the side effects of chemo on the big day, in May 2004.

“But all the way through it, the worst thing was watching everybody else and what they were going through,” said James.

“It was taking such a toll on my family – so you end up thinking of yourself as a burden to other people.”

“James was so positive, he never thought he was going to die,” said Michelle, who also knew how important it was to be strong for him, and not to expect the worst.

“You can’t think like that,” she added. “You have to power on and believe that everything’s going to be fine.”

But then it was Michelle’s turn, and the same year she had a protruding stomach and doctors found a giant dermoid cyst on her right ovary, the size of a head and weighing 15 pounds – and a tumour on her left ovary.

Both growths were removed but not without considerable damage.

“I was advised that my one repaired ovary would only last two years so if we wanted children we had to act fast,” said Michelle.

But when a freezer-related catastrophe struck at the Jessop Wing in Sheffield where James’ sperm was being stored, all hope seemed to be lost.

“We thought that was it – our chance was over, and we started to accept that maybe children weren’t in our future.”

They went to a fertility specialist, and to their astonishment it turned out that James’s sperm count was higher after chemo than when he had his sperm frozen.

“We put this down to the new chemo drugs he was on,” said Michelle.

After investigation, the couple’s chances of conceiving naturally were about six per cent and their best bet was IVF.

But before Michelle even started treatment she became unexpectedly pregnant in April 2007, and their first child was born in January.

“We thought he was our little miracle baby,” she said, and the pair now have two children, Alexander, six, and Arthur, five, both at Hasland Infant School.

“They were the best thing to every happen to us,” said James.

“Without the new drugs they wouldn’t be here.”

Alexander, or Xander, wants to follow in his parents’ footsteps and be a scientist or an engineer when he grows up – while Arthur wants to be a palaeontologist.

“He’s obsessed with dinosaurs, they’re all over his room,” said Michelle.

“I call him ‘Arthur tomata’ because his face is always bright red!”

Michelle is now the co-chair of the Chesterfield Fundraising Group for Cancer Research UK, and principally involved in planning an annual fundraiser – the Spooktacular Sponsored Stroll at Chatsworth this Halloween.

Families and groups of friends are encouraged to get involved with either a 5K or 10K walk on Sunday, October 26 – Halloween costumes welcomed.

“It’s very important to me that we raise as much money as we can so that other people get to spend more time with their parents, grandparents and loved ones,” said Michelle.

Her kids love the event – last year they dressed as a mummy and the devil.

Xander said: “I like how lots of my friends come to support mummy and she makes it fun for the kids. She works for the charity because she cares about others. She wants people to get medicines and to help them to stay alive.”

“It makes me happy when mummy does charity as I like having my photo taken when I am dressed up,” added Arthur.

Michelle said: “They love to help out and are really proud of it. Xander wants to take leaflets to school to get all his friends to come.

Funding research is vital not just for saving lives but for saving families, said Michelle: “New drugs can improve quality of life during treatment as well as afterwards, and if it wasn’t for such great research we wouldn’t have our amazing boys.”

Now looking back on such turbulent years, the family can laugh about what they’ve been through.

“It’s a standing joke among James’ friends that he can’t be killed by conventional weapons, and we used to joke about how we were one of those matching couples with a tumour each.

“We also kept taking turns to go under the knife. ‘It’s your turn, no it’s your turn.’”

“You have to laugh or you go mad,” said Michelle. “And James had another surgery recently so I’ve told him he’s got to give it up now.”

“Now it’s your turn,” said James.

Find out more and register for the walk at www.spooktacularstroll.co.uk – use promotional code SPOOK50 to register for half price.