Something felt wrong. I was happily pregnant with our second child, awaiting the test results of first trimester screenings, and though every test came back negative for birth defects etc., I felt wary of the pregnancy. At 14 weeks my obstetrician told me to enjoy the pregnancy and that the baby looked perfect, but I still felt uncertain. Something felt wrong and I could not shake the unsettling feeling that something was wrong with the baby. But it wasn’t the baby. It was me.
Four weeks later, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer with a 4 cm tumor in my right breast. I had noticed this lump (a lot smaller) after the birth of my first child, but it was cyclical, seeming to appear monthly and disappear. I had some preliminary tests done, but it didn’t seem to raise so much concern that it would pull me away from my busy world of raising a one year old and working full time. With this second pregnancy, the lump grew. And as things change with pregnancy, I chalked it up to one of those hormonal things.
In my 18th week of my pregnancy, my ob called me out of the blue. He asked if I had gotten the lump looked at recently. I told him I didn’t think I could get a mammogram since I was pregnant. He advised me that ultrasound was an option and it would be safe. I booked an appointment and looked forward to crossing off my list of to do’s: get ultrasound, get car registered, clean out baby’s future room. Three days later I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The first thing cancer takes away is your breath, a relative told me. Well it took away my breath and it cast a shadow on what should have been a very special and beautiful moment in my life. It would be a time of undulating fear, panic, unbearable physical fatigue, and sadness for having to subject my baby to treatment I never would have dreamed possible.
During the diagnostic tests, we found out we were having a girl. I remember getting ultrasounds for various organs and walking away with extra pictures of my little girl. The technicians could not resist checking up on her. She became the most photographed baby in utero!
I had surgery immediately to remove the tumor. This was nerve wracking since the baby was not viable yet and would be subjected to anesthesia and other medications. I was lucky that I had a fantastic team at my hospital who worked together to create a treatment plan that would care for me and my baby while treating the cancer. I had a perinatal team who assisted in ultrasound to give me peace of mind before and after the surgery. I remember waking up and hearing the doctor and the nurses saying “look she is kicking!” I could barely even open my eyes and there she was: kicking and doing somersaults. That was when I realized this baby was strong. This baby was going to make it and I would too. She would be my strength and I would be hers.
After I recovered from surgery I began my chemo. I remember pressing the elevator button to go to the infusion floor and people would look at my pregnant belly and ask me if I was going to floor 4 (Perinatal). I remember the looks on their faces when I stepped onto the cancer floor. I remember the looks of the patients in oncology, their pity, but their admiration. It made me stand up a little taller. I remember walking up to perinatal hours later to see the baby, 6 lbs. heavier (please don’t weigh me again!) from the chemo. Every ultrasound, my little angel was kicking away, strong as strong could be. I remember the nurses asking me excitedly what I was going to name her and how I was feeling. I remember the kindly doctor informing me that “You don’t have to be a martyr. You can take these medications. You do what you need to. We are looking out for your baby. That is our job. Look at her. She is strong.” And she was strong. She was ahead growth wise every time.
I believe my pregnancy helped me get through those first 12 weeks of chemo. When I was a couple of days out of chemo, she was responsible for giving me my appetite, reducing my nausea, and craving protein like eggs and turkey. She was what brought joy to me when I felt her kicks or saw her on those many ultrasounds. She was what kept me moving (and my 2 year old, my goodness!). She let me focus on something positive.
Serafina Kate was born during the “break” in my treatment, via scheduled c-section at 36.5 weeks. She was and is the most beautiful baby: happy, a great sleeper, and most importantly, healthy. She was born with an instant fan base: all the doctors and nurses and family who had looked out for her. Two weeks later I started my second round of chemo, followed by two more surgeries. But this time, it was a breeze compared to before. I just had myself to worry about medically, and that was easy.
I still continue with treatment. And while still feeling robbed sometimes of my pregnancy due to cancer, I am grateful to organizations like Hope for Two who helped me realize I was not alone and reassured me that my baby would be ok after chemo. It made me see that there were other strong women who did it and therefore, I could too. I could do the thing I didn’t think I could do.