I’ve thought a lot about cancer lately. Besides being a writer and an artist, I’m also a consultant within the pharmaceutical industry. As part of that work, I’ve recently visited quite a few cancer treatment centers. I’ve walked past folks sitting in chemo chairs in Washington. In a Florida hospice grief center, I’ve been shown a small, dark room that lights up with fluorescent messages children have written to the moms and dads they miss. In a center I visited in Illinois, I saw a giant gong. Each time a patient reaches remission, the center invites friends and family for a gong ceremony to signify the courageous battle that was fought and won.
When I was growing up, a cancer diagnosis was thought to be a death sentence. Although the landscape has certainly changed and progressed, the “C” word is still one of our greatest fears, and can very well lead to death. I’m betting that very few of us remain untouched by cancer. Through my work related to breakthrough cancer pain, I’ve come to appreciate how even those fortunate enough to make it through that fight are struck with a debilitating and life-changing aberration. No matter what the outcome, cancer changes those whom it strikes.
Considering what I’ve recently learned about living with cancer and the associated treatments, I can’t begin to imagine what it might be like to also have a baby growing side-by-side with that potential killer, all encased in the confines of my body. An expanding baby needs care and nourishment while spreading cancer must be eradicated with radiation and poisonous chemicals. How can a healthy baby result? Is it possible?
Sandi, the newest member of the Aberration Nation has lived through this nightmare and can shed light on the mind-blowing combination. Her story makes the aches, pains, and nausea of my pregnancies seem like a fragrant stroll through the Shreveport Rose Center. Sandi is truly a survivor who has courageously embraced her greatest challenges. Like a bouquet of roses, she holds one of the most precious outcomes lovingly in her arms.
You received a cancer diagnosis while pregnant. Can you tell us what happened?
My family and I went through a large move two hours away from our relatives. During this move I was feeling very winded and tired. I had been wheezing a lot and just having an all around difficult time even moving one box. I had been having issues for awhile but during the move it got a lot worse. After getting into the new home, I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive. My first thought was, Well, I knew I was feeling very sick … I was having issues breathing. I got winded walking up just a few stairs or even simply talking. Having conversations wiped me out and caused me to pant. I’d been told constantly that I have thyroid issues, and tried my hardest to believe that was the issue. But I didn’t know how I could carry a pregnancy to term considering how sick I felt. So we went back to the doctor. Exactly two weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I was told I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
What were your first thoughts when faced with the cancer diagnosis? How did your pregnancy impact your initial reaction and attitude? Did your attitude change in any way throughout the course of your pregnancy?
When the doctor first said the word lymphoma, I was pretty much in shock. I thought to myself that this could not be happening … because I was pregnant. I couldn’t have cancer. I was having such a terrible time simply breathing though that it was honestly hard to sit and think about all the details too much. I just wanted to be able to breathe again without it hurting. I also knew I wanted my baby to be safe. I was questioning whether there was any possible way that my baby and I could get through this together. I honestly became much more concerned for the baby because I figured she would have the hardest time making it through any potential drug treatments or surgeries. I was very confused. I hadn’t even heard of this happening before. My attitude changed a lot during my pregnancy because I was doing well. The chemotherapy was working, and all of my doctor’s appointments for the baby showed she was growing and progressing normally. I honestly looked towards her birth as a symbol of getting through it all. She was the happy ending, the good result at the end of all the pain.
Ironically, I think that after going through the initial diagnosis and first two or three chemotherapy treatments, the pregnancy gave me strange comfort. I never felt alone. I always knew she was with me. I was going through something that takes lives all the time while growing a new life inside me. We often think of cancer as something that takes lives. We certainly never think of a new life beginning during it. She gave me hope when I really should have been terrified. Sometimes I was. I certainly broke down a few times but I tried to not let myself be too scared. I knew the fear would eat me alive if I let it. As far as physical issues, I was very tired all the time and very weak as well. Chemotherapy and pregnancy alone both cause these things. Together it was just that much worse. I spent a lot of time in bed and was put on bed rest towards the end of the pregnancy.
How common is this situation?
I’ve been told that one in 1000 pregnancies has cancer occur at the same time. It’s pretty rare. Actually, in a lot of these situations you can delay treatment, but in my case I could not. I had to start in the first trimester which is almost unheard of. I was ten weeks along.
Today we have more options than in the past. What choices were presented to you, and how did you feel about them?
Honestly my choices were slim because I myself was not doing well. The specialist I saw told me I should have a therapeutic abortion because they didn’t know what could possibly happen to the baby, and it would be better for me emotionally to not have to deal with a child who had problems. My life was not in danger by keeping the pregnancy at all. I was told I would not last three weeks so I had no choice but to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. I couldn’t wait until the second or third trimester as they normally recommend. I didn’t have that kind of time, so we started treatments at 10 weeks. I was able to do the radiation after her birth, which was nice. I was supposed to be induced at 37 weeks to give my body time to heal before radiation but she came on her own at 36 weeks.
Did your children understand what was going on in your life? If so, how did this impact the family dynamic?
My older children knew I was very sick at first but didn’t know why. They knew I was having a baby and were happy about it but didn’t fully understand what was wrong with me. At the suggestion of a counselor at the oncology office, we told them I had cancer. We were told to not fear the “C” word and to just be honest with our children and we agreed. I didn’t see my girls much in the beginning because I as so sick. I became very lonely. They were in the same house but I didn’t have enough energy to even hug them. It was very difficult.
When faced with life’s aberrations, many people who seem to have tons of support can’t manage to cope, while some folks with little to no support manage to survive. Did the support of family and friends make the difference for you, or do you believe your own inner resolve ultimately brought you through?
I really believe the support of my husband and children are what got me through. We had just moved away from all of our other family and friends. We were two hours from them, and honestly I didn’t see any of them much at all. They were afraid to call me because of my breathing problems. I felt slightly abandoned by them but I understood their fears. However, my husband was by my side day and night caring for me. His job allowed him to stay with me and still get paid, which was so wonderful. My mother-in-law came and helped out during radiation treatments. My children were there to help, and did a lot of growing up during that time. I really think the love and support given to me mostly by my husband helped me through. I tried to voice the what ifs and he wouldn’t hear it. I had no choice but to get better. He made it clear. I loved it and I needed to hear it.
How did the the story end and what did you learn from this life-threatening situation? Do you believe that you and your family are stronger now for having had to face such difficult times together?
I had my final chemotherapy at 32 weeks. I did get some preterm contractions with this chemo and the one before it. I spent a night in the hospital and they managed to stop the contractions. At 36 weeks my water broke. I went to the hospital and was Life Flighted to a children’s hospital two hours away. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl, 6 lbs. 3 oz and 18 inches long, on November 17th, 2007. She didn’t require NICU care … she was healthy! I was doing okay, too. I had radiation about two weeks after her birth every day for a month and got a clear PET scan on February 8th, 2008. I was declared in remission. My baby girl is now 15 months old, and I just celebrated one year of being cancer free. It has absolutely strengthened my family. Our love for each other is right out there in the open now. I know how very much my husband loves me and I do not take one day or second for granted that I have with my family. My older daughters had to grow up a lot during this time. We all changed and we are all stronger for it I think.
Honestly I was very close to death, but at the time I just wanted to feel better. I couldn’t imagine not being able to breathe anymore or having the pain involved with breathing. I wanted it to stop one way or another. It’s not so scary at that moment–you just want the pain to stop. I got very scared later and realized I didn’t want to leave my family. Most of all I want to see my daughters grow up and I certainly don’t want them to forget me. I try to do things with them and show them how very much I love them because I realize we aren’t guaranteed anything. We don’t know how much time we’ll have so I want to leave a lasting impression in the lives of my children.
I do believe there is a lot of support for cancer patients out there and I love it. I think it’s wonderful. I think that cancer during pregnancy is not as widely recognized as say just breast cancer alone. I think it’s something that women don’t have enough information on. Women feel alone and helpless. I want to spread the word that there is hope. You can get well and keep your baby, too. It’s possible. That message is not widely known.