A couple who met, married and had a baby after discovering they were dating the same man had their new-found happiness shattered by cancer.
Leeanne and Emma Davies-Grassnick have been on a four-year emotional rollercoaster that lifted them from the depths of despair to the heights of bliss, then hurled them back down again.
Just four months after having son Casper, Leeanne discovered she has stage four bowel cancer, with the same mutation that hit “Bowel Babe” Deborah James – who raised £7.5million for research before she died in June aged 40.
Leanne, 38, is on her second course of chemotherapy and faces an uncertain future. But with ever-smiling Casper – now eight months – and wife Emma willing her on, she declares: “I will not give up hope.”
Her remarkable journey began in 2018 after discovering the man she was living with was a serial cheat.
She left him, then three other women he had been seeing all dumped him too – and set up a WhatsApp group to swap stories. Leeanne and Emma – a doctor studying for a PhD in cancer research – got along and decided to meet up in January 2019… and fell madly in love.
Leeanne explains: “What started with a conversation about the man who betrayed us quickly turned into what felt like the perfect first date.
“We talked for six hours over two bottles of prosecco. I’d only dated men. At the end of the night, I don’t know how it happened, somehow we kissed.
“I had always said love isn’t about gender, it’s about the person, but this was the first time I’d experienced that.”
Emma, 33, who had dated women and men, added: “It was pretty magical. We fell in love that night and were inseparable from then on.”
She popped the question 10 months later, on Leeanne’s birthday. The pair, from Clapham, South London, wanted children and both began IVF treatment.
Leeanne, originally from Berlin, says: “Having a family was hugely important, because we both have the most supportive, loving families and we wanted that for ourselves. We couldn’t wait to have a child.”
They each had eggs extracted and chose an anonymous sperm donor based on shared values and similarities.
Both sets of eggs were fertilised to make embryos, then frozen. They used one of Emma’s embryos and Leeanne carried the baby.
Leeanne, a financial crime consultant for banks, said: “It really felt like we were both fully involved in the pregnancy.”
The pair wed in London in October 2021 and gorgeous Casper was born on Boxing Day. “Emma helped deliver the baby,” says Leeanne. “It was an incredible moment. She passed him to me and we both felt this indescribable love. He was a dream come true. He barely cries, he is so smiley and chilled – he’s the best thing in our lives.”
Emma adds: “As soon as we became a family of three, it felt like he had always been with us. We were blissfully happy.”
Tragically, that happiness was to be short-lived. In April this year, after months of exhaustion which she put down to being a new mum, as well as post-natal infections, and a nagging pain under her ribs while on holiday in Corfu, she decided to get checked out.
Emma insisted on examining her when they got home and discovered her liver was enlarged. Leeanne was rushed to hospital and, days later, they were given a devastating diagnosis at King’s College Hospital, South London.
Breaking down in tears, Leeanne recalls: “Our lives came crumbling down when they said my tumour markers indicated colon cancer and it had spread to the liver, with one tumour measuring 15cm. It was stage four. I ran to the sink and threw up. I was having a panic attack, I kept saying, ‘My poor baby, my poor baby.’ I couldn’t breathe and all I thought of was our baby boy.
“It felt like someone had ripped the ground from under me.” Emma adds: “I went numb. I know how aggressive bowel cancer can be. Leeanne was a fit and healthy 38-year-old.
“A new mum. We had our dream little boy and our whole lives ahead of us – it made no sense.” Faced with an MRI scan and chemotherapy, Leeanne had to stop breastfeeding Casper.
She says: “Our gorgeous boy was in the waiting room with his grandma. I’d last fed him before I walked into that doctor’s room and got my diagnosis. I knew I could never feed him again. I was heartbroken. It felt brutally unfair.”
Leeanne’s emotions endured a relentless battering back home. She goes on: “There was a lot of physical pain but also a lot of emotional pain. I sometimes had to walk away. In the beginning I thought, is it better to not let Casper attach himself to me and not love me, because it will be more painful for him if one day I’m not here. I tried to distance myself a little bit.
“I was devastated. I went from sleeping beside him, feeding him, to sleeping in a separate room. Sleep is so important for immunity.
“It breaks my heart. He has only just come into this world and there’s the potential I might not be here for long.”
Emma recalls: “It was incredibly tough. I had to take over caring for Casper and for Leeanne. I was giving him a bottle that he didn’t want, that we didn’t want to give him. It all felt so wrong. How did this happen?”
There was another crushing blow when Leeanne was told she had the fast-growing BRAF V600E mutation.
After being referred to the Royal Marsden Hospital, Leanne began a powerful, three-drug course of chemotherapy and treatment on May 20.
She had six rounds of chemo in 12 weeks and says: “My first round was painful, the tumours in my liver were really reacting and I found the pain harder than labour and childbirth. It was excruciating. I would dig my nails into my arm, just to concentrate the pain and to try to get through it.
“The side-effects were tough, but I kept telling myself this was all good, it meant the chemo was working.”
Leeanne switched to a wholefood, plant-based diet, took up yoga and meditation and began acupuncture.
Although her cancer markers improved and the tumours in her colon shrunk, her liver tumours remained too big to be operable.
Of that news, just three weeks ago, she says: “It felt like being diagnosed all over again. If the tumours in my liver don’t shrink, we can’t operate.
“I need to be able to have them removed or I won’t get better.”
She is now three rounds into her second course of chemo.
Emma says: “It feels unfair, but we remain hopeful. Casper is the glue that holds us all together. I think, ‘Am I going to be a widow at 34 or 35 and have to raise a child alone?’ But at the same time, he makes us continue and fight. He brings so much joy.”
Leanne adds: “We try to make the best of the small moments. We laugh and sing songs and try to get away in the non-chemo weeks to do nice things and be with family.
“It is incredibly tough to remain positive, but trying to help others and raise awareness makes me feel there is a purpose to something. A lot of the positivity comes from hope that we will survive this. I will not lose hope. I am not going to give up.
“Hugs and kisses up above for Bowel Babe Dame Deborah. Her strength and courage was remarkable.
“She helped me a lot. She had the same mutation as me. We got diagnosed just before she died.
“It’s heartbreaking because you think is that going to be me? But at the same time, I take so much strength from her. The money she has raised to go into research for cancer is amazing. She saved lives and I would love to do the same thing.
“It is so important that we talk about it. I’m 38, I was happy, I ate well and exercised. But there are so many things we need to be cautious of. It can happen to anyone.”