At her first pre-natal scan, Gemma Nuttall learned that she had aggressive ovarian cancer but refused life-saving drugs that would have meant terminating her pregnancy. Her daughter Penelope was born healthy but after a long battle with illness Gemma was told NHS doctors could do no more to save her. She was put on end-of-life care and given six-to-12 months to live. But backed by her mum, Gemma began fundraising for immunotherapy at a German “wonder clinic”. Kate heard about it and stepped in. To help fund the £300,000 treatment she and Leo auctioned off three “Jack and Rose” date nights – named after the sweethearts they played in Titanic. Five months ago Gemma finished her last round of treatment in Germany, and has now been told she is cancer free.
Speaking for the first time, she said, “I can’t thank Kate enough. Without her donations, and the public’s, my story would be very different. We thought it was a wind-up, but then she called and I realised she was serious. I was so nervous but she asked me how I was feeling and how my treatment was going – she wanted to help. I told her I could never thank her enough and she told me not to be daft. She said she had read about my story online, that she had three kids of her own and had thought about what she would be like in that position. She said: ‘I just felt that urge to reach out to you, I knew that I wanted to help’.”
In November, Kate won an Actors Inspiration Award from the Screen Actors’ Guild for her charity work and her help with Gemma. Proud Kate, 42, said, “I was able to help raise an enormous amount of money and Gemma is cancer free today.” And receiving the award, she added, “The greatest privilege has been learning how to use my voice to help others. Standing up for individuals who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves… helping a person who is dying – she’s still alive by the way – because they don’t have the money that could pay for specialist treatment that could save her life.”
It was back in 2013 that Gemma found out she was pregnant. But her GP expressed concern that she looked five months’ pregnant, despite only being a few weeks gone. It turned out Gemma had large cysts on her ovaries, which were blocking her baby’s heartbeat. At 16 weeks she had a laparotomy, in which the left side of her ovaries and tubes were removed. Tests revealed Gemma had aggressive ovarian cancer that would spread without immediate treatment.
Her pregnancy hormones were making it grow more rapidly. The heartbroken mum-to-be was advised to consider a termination so she could have lifesaving treatment. But Gemma was having none of it. Breaking down in tears, she recalls: “I went home and I told my partner ‘I can’t get rid of her’.
“She saved my life, she was the reason my cancer had been discovered. I felt I had to repay the favour.” At 26 weeks devastated Gemma was told the disease had spread to her cervix. She had an emergency Caesarean, immediately followed by surgery to remove the tumour.
“They held Penelope up to me, I saw her and then they took her away and put me to sleep. So I didn’t get that precious moment to hold my baby and feel that rush of emotion. I was too unwell to see her that night when I woke up, which was heartbreaking because it was all I wanted to do. It wasn’t until the following day when I was taken to see her in my wheelchair. She was in an incubator and I reached in and held her hand, for as long as I could. We were both alive and that was all that mattered.”
Penelope weighed 4lbs 5oz when she was born on March 24, 2014. Two weeks later dental nurse Gemma began six months of chemotherapy. She was cancer free for more than a year but then found a lump on the back of her head. Doctors at Royal Blackburn Hospital later confirmed that Gemma had a stage four tumour. Gemma recalls the moment vividly and sobs: “I could see the devastation on the consultant’s face when he told me. “Then my mum and I burst into tears. I faced brain surgery and was told I might not be the same person afterwards. It was terrifying.”
The brain op went well at Preston Royal Hospital but the tumour could not be fully removed because of its position. The rest would be targeted by radiotherapy. Swollen by steroids, with one eye closed for six months, Gemma began a job as a soft play centre manager. But months later she started having headaches and doctors found eight new tumours dotted around her head. The mum, who had recently split up with her partner saying she had “shut down” her emotions, was given more chemotherapy and radiotherapy, losing her hair for a second time.
Finally, she was told nothing more could be done. She adds: “I was told I needed to make a will and put things in place for Penelope when I was gone. I felt written off completely. But my mum thought ‘I’m not having this. I’m not going to let my daughter die’.”
Mum Helen Sproates, 56, says she “fell apart” seeing Gemma receiving the devastating news. Helen had read about immunotherapy – which boosts the body’s natural defences – that was available at Germany’s Hallwang Clinic. She sold her house and set up a fundraising page asking for further donations to cover the immense cost. Gemma flew to Germany last May and started a six-session course of immunotherapy, costing up to £70,000 a time. But she only had enough money for the first round.
Then in July, Helen received an email from Kate Winslet’s PA, saying she desperately wanted to help. The star’s financial support, combined with public donations and money from Helen’s house sale, funded the treatment. Helen explains: “Kate told me from one mum to another mum, she couldn’t let my daughter die. She’s been brilliant. She’s lovely, really down to earth and funny, it’s just like chatting to a friend. Leonardo DiCaprio has a massive ball for his foundation every year, so Kate contacted him. They came up with a plan to auction themselves off. They sold three dates between them.”
Kate spoke about her intervention during an appearance on Graham Norton . She told the TV host: “Back in July I was doing some fundraising for a cancer sufferer who desperately needed funds for a lifesaving treatment. I called Leo and said: ‘Can we do a dinner with Jack and Rose?’ His foundation is completely unbelievable and he said: ‘We’ll auction off Jack and Rose for dinner and we’ll make those funds’. We raised $1.35 million dollars.”
In November, two months after finishing her course of immunotherapy at The Hallwang, Gemma went for a scan at The Christie cancer treatment clinic in Manchester. She was told she is cancer free. She says,“I was amazed. For the scans to come back clear, it means the immunotherapy is working. We were thrilled.” Gemma will have her next scan later this month. Depending on the result, she is planning to have more immunotherapy to strengthen her position even more. Her GoFundMe page is reopening for donations.
Kate and Gemma text from time to time and have even spoken about meeting up soon. You can support Gemma at gofundme.com/teamgemma