A young woman misdiagnosed as 8 months pregnant had a 2.5kg cancerous cyst removed from her body. Now, 22 years later, she finds herself preparing her teenage daughters for a possible life without her after being diagnosed with breast cancer. For the first time, Nalini Cook shares her extraordinary story.

Nalini Cook sat restlessly in a small sterile room, holding her stomach tight as she struggled to breathe.

The 20-year-old's parents sat either side of her, concerned for their daughter's wellbeing.

Then the doctor dropped the bombshell. Cook was 8 months pregnant.

Her parents were appalled. Cook pleaded with the doctor to carry out a proper physical examination - and insisted she had never had sex. But her pleas were ignored.

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"I was really shocked and my mother was looking and me horrified, and I was thinking I'm too busy wanting to make money to think about having children," Nalini says.

"My parents were doing timelines, thinking I wasn't staying with them when they were at a wedding, and it was like 'wow this is really testing the values of our family'.

"It was a feeling beyond disbelief. I thought I was going to have the next baby Jesus.

"My mum was panicking, thinking she was going to have a grandchild. Of course, it turned out that wasn't the case."

It took a visit to another doctor to reveal the truth: Cook had a cancer so rare only one other person in the world was known to have survived it.

**

The day Cook was told a baby was six weeks away still haunts the 42-year-old descendant of Ngāpuhi (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa me Tainui Iwi).

It was a cold, overcast winter day in 1998. The next morning she woke in her Whangārei bedroom, which was filled with crystals, new age books, stacks of CDs and a map of the world.

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She stared at the map and began thinking about all the places she wanted to travel to.

She was in shock and preparing for a midwife's appointment to check on the baby's development.

But she was also annoyed at not being believed and so she made an appointment to see a different GP. He felt her rock-hard newly-bulging tummy and couldn't locate a heartbeat. He ran a blood test.

That helped reveal her "pregnancy" was actually a 2.5kg cancerous cyst containing hair, teeth and nails.

She was one of two women in the world known to have survived this particular type of ovarian cancer. The other was in the United States.

"I remember being happy to prove my family doctor wrong - but then getting this sudden daunting realisation of the seriousness of cancer. It was a bittersweet win.

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"I don't ever remember going back to that GP or my family being involved with him.

"I remember him apologising to my parents and saying he understood if they didn't want to be treated by him anymore."

Cook says her parents' frustration at the alarming misdiagnosis quickly morphed into a fear of losing their daughter to cancer.

The vibrant lover of life was given just three months to live.

"I was told I was lucky to still be living."

Cook in hospital with ovarian cancer at the age of 20 after being wrongly told she was eight months pregnant. Photo / Supplied
Cook in hospital with ovarian cancer at the age of 20 after being wrongly told she was eight months pregnant. Photo / Supplied

She was transported to Auckland's Greenlane National Women's Hospital - at that time Whangārei didn't have an oncology department.

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For two weeks doctors were too scared to operate because every day her lungs were filling up with two litres of fluid.

A biopsy was conducted to drain the fluid so surgeons could remove the cyst.

"My body was creating fluid for the cyst to feed off, I had this big baby alien growing in my tummy which was damaging all my organs.

"It looked like I was heavily pregnant but it was growing rapidly."

Eventually, surgeons were able to remove the cyst, along with one of her ovaries.

Cook then underwent three months of intense chemotherapy - three cycles that were usually done over 12 months.

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Each month, she had to travel three hours from Whangārei to Auckland for treatment.

"My immediate reaction to being told I was dying of cancer was to go bungy jumping and do a tour of the South Island.

"I thought if this was it, I wanted to make sure I went out with a bang."

Against all odds, Cook recovered and was told she was cancer-free.

But the good news came with a sting in the tail. She was told she'd never be able to have children.

"That was heartbreaking because family is what I live for. It was quite depressing to hear."

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**

Fast-forward seven years and Cook was aged 27 living in Hamilton with her partner, when a seeming miracle happened.

"I found out I was actually pregnant. I remember thinking 'really? I can have a baby?'.

"I had set myself up thinking I was going to be that aunty that turns up at Christmas with noisy toys. It was unbelievable and quite empowering."

Nalini Cook enjoying the moments she has left with her teenage daughters Waihemonga (15) and Rangi-Rawhiti (13). Photo / Michael Cunningham
Nalini Cook enjoying the moments she has left with her teenage daughters Waihemonga (15) and Rangi-Rawhiti (13). Photo / Michael Cunningham

She went on to have two beautiful daughters - now 13 and 15.

The trio moved back up Whangārei when Cook's dad became sick and they now live on a lifestyle block in Kaikohe, with two dogs and seven cats.

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**

Two years ago, at 40, the deadly disease returned.

"I was out walking the dogs when I felt a lump in my breast, it felt like a golf ball," says Cook.

Her previous cancer experience had prompted her to act quickly, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"The doctors kept saying 'you're so young to have cancer' and I was thinking 'I had ovarian cancer when I was 20, this isn't young'."

Doctors told Cook getting cancer twice before the age of 40 made her one of the unluckiest people in the world. But for Cook, her thoughts were only for her daughters.

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She says being diagnosed with cancer when she was younger was "a piece of cake" compared to now. Back then she only had herself to think about.

"It's a fear of leaving this world and knowing you could not have an imprint on your children and you might not be there for them, that's scary."

In between her second cancer diagnosis and having a double mastectomy, she took her daughters on a spiritual hīkoi to help them understand their identity and where they came from.

Nalini says each day she wakes up to another sunrise is a blessing. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Nalini says each day she wakes up to another sunrise is a blessing. Photo / Michael Cunningham

They visited marae in Cape Rēinga, Rotorua and Taranaki and learned traditional Māori gardening techniques.

Taking courage from her loved ones, Cook wants to share her extraordinary story to help raise awareness about cancer.

She speaks openly to her daughters about it because she wants them to have that awareness of death and be mindful.

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"We've talked about where they potentially might want to stay if I was to pass."

There is still much unknown about Cook's prognosis but despite all she has been through she remains hopeful.

"Some days I wake up and think 'oh man', but I always think I'm grateful I'm still here to see another sunrise and another sunset.

"I always try to remember that I'm lucky I'm still breathing, and that I'm here - because a lot of people aren't."

Daffodil Day is August 28. Auckland's street collection has been cancelled due to Covid-19, but donations can be made online at daffodilday.org.nz.