“You have to be willing to give up the life you planned, and instead, greet the life that is waiting for you.”
– Joseph Campbell
On February 4th, we celebrate World Cancer Day. It is a holiday that helps provide support and bring awareness to all who fight cancer, along with their support systems.
At the age of 35, I never thought I’d have my own story to tell in navigating motherhood with cancer. I’m a very “let’s plan ahead and know what’s coming” type of girl. This was certainly one for the books that I couldn’t plan or prepare for — much like the ebbs and flows of motherhood at times. I was diagnosed at 21 weeks pregnant, in March of 2019, with acute myeloid leukemia, or MDS for short.
At that time, I was working as a paralegal and halfway into our pregnancy that we longed for. We struggled with infertility several months prior. We were ecstatic to find out we were already pregnant a day after our first infertility consultation. Shortly into the pregnancy, I had a subchorionic hemorrhage. Little did we know that would be the first of many hardships in our pregnancy. Because of my medical history, my OB team did extensive blood work throughout the early months of pregnancy.
You Have Cancer
At the end of February 2019, blood work results showed signs of trouble in my red and white blood cell counts. Because of this, I was set up for an ultrasound-monitored bone marrow biopsy and referred to a hematologist for follow-up.
While I was at work the following week, I had several missed calls from my referred hematologist. Her words echo loud and clear still to this very day.
“I have cleared my afternoon for you, and I need you and your husband, to come to my office immediately.”
Not knowing what was to come, I called my husband and we made our way to the hematology office. She sat us down and said, “You have cancer. We found it in your bone marrow, and you begin treatment tomorrow. Tomorrow morning you’re going to be transferred to MUSC for continued pregnancy care and to the Hollings Cancer Center for cancer treatment. I’m so incredibly sorry.”
I have loved on, prayed for, and embraced those who’ve gotten a cancer call and diagnosis. Never could I have thought it would happen to me . . . until it did.
At that moment, all I could do was cry. All my husband could do was be my strong shoulder, as he had been so many times before — but nothing to this caliber.
Our lives changed in that very moment . . . forever. Motherhood changed at that very moment too. Everything I held onto about my own motherhood journey seeped through the grip of my hands like specks of tiny sand. I had to pick up the new journey of becoming a mother with cancer. And in my own way, I grieved what was supposed to be for what now is. I spent many months blaming myself for “my body failing.” I developed anxiety too.
My First Trip to the Cancer Center
The next morning, we went to Hollings Cancer Center to learn about this new diagnosis and meet the medical team for both my pregnancy and MDS. I was immediately taken out of work for the safety of our baby girl and my own health. Yes, we were having a sweet baby girl!
In the days ahead, I would have weekly blood tests, several blood transfusions (sometimes each week), biweekly fetal monitoring, finding a donor, and planning for an allogeneic stem cell transplant.
The goal of my medical team was to get me safely through the pregnancy while also having a cancer that can be extremely progressive at any given time. This was a new and unusual case the cancer team had never experienced: being pregnant with cancer. Immediately following the birth of my baby girl, I was to expect a two-month hospital stay for chemotherapy and aftercare following a transplant.
At 34 weeks, our baby girl arrived through emergency cesarean. She was severely growth-restricted from the cancer, and I had developed preeclampsia. She was our tiny, three pounds five ounces, beautiful girl. Oftentimes, I struggled from being beaten up by the cancer and feeling like I wasn’t a good mom because my body failed her ability to thrive. She fought so hard to get here, and together we would fight to live. This time it was momma’s turn.
The Road to Transplant
What originally was supposed to be six weeks after my daughter’s birth turned into four months until I could be admitted for a transplant. It was something I feared, yet I was boldly ready to fight head-on!
I wouldn’t be able to see much of my daughter in those two months due to active chemotherapy precautions, so I was incredibly thankful for that extra time before admission! The first few months of motherhood bring all that newness where first smiles turn to coos, then giggles, and belly laughter . . . sleepless nights filled with gratitude and grace for yourself as a new mom. I didn’t want to miss a single moment. This is a season you’re afraid to blink because those sweet babies truly grow so fast.
After my fourth bone marrow biopsy, we were ready to fight the fight. Just two days after my daughter turned four months old, I was admitted to the hospital to get my little brother’s stem cells — all 3.4 million of them! He is my transplant donor and an unsung hero. These are the hard moments no one can prepare you for, yet beautifully broken moments you somehow become thankful for.
That very next day after admission, I was given my first bag of chemo knowing it was about to wreak havoc on my body. Everything they tell you about chemo side effects is numb in comparison to what you actually experience. I experienced every side effect they try to prepare you for. Four days of harsh chemo followed by transplant day (considered day 0), then 16 days of another chemo as you begin to count from day 0 to day 100 after the transplant. The chemo wipes you of every immunity you’ve ever had and clears your system to “start over” down to your very bone marrow.
My husband would visit when he could, while also being the sole caretaker and provider of our entire household. We are so thankful for all the help we received while we battled the hurdles. He would drop off our baby girl to friends, go to work, get our baby girl again, care for her in the evenings, see me when he could, and do it all again each day.
This kind of journey is never easy. There are times I question why I was given this card of cancer. But then I put on my gloves and jump in for another round. “Momma you are STRONG!”
The side effect that hurt the most was losing my hair. I was now bald. It was a physical reminder to myself and others that I was undergoing active cancer treatment, yet a beautifully brave reminder of the new level of strength I truly can accomplish from within: being a momma with cancer.
For transplant patients, the first 100 days are very critical to get the stem cells to graft into the bone marrow. You essentially are given a new birthday. So I now have two birthdays I celebrate each year. My actual birthday and transplant birthday.
I was able to go home the day before Thanksgiving in 2019. The following weeks were filled with follow-ups and sometimes admissions to ensure the new cells were growing into what they needed to be.
My baby girl would often make trips with me to appointments where she is loved by the entire Hollings staff. Even today, she is always the topic of conversation at every appointment. They’ve been there from womb until now cheering us both on. And they’ve gotten to see her story unfold too. In her own way she has taught me endurance and in return, I show her how we can trade ashes for beauty no matter what that looks like.
On February 5th, 2020 I heard three new words: “You’re in remission.” My cancer journey isn’t entirely over. After that day I’ve learned to embrace our new normal with every challenge given.
Life After Cancer
Since the transplant, I’ve fought the pandemic being immune compromised. I have also developed GvHD in my eyes and lungs, which can happen with transplant patients. I still see care teams regularly since my 2019 diagnosis. I get sick easily but have learned to know my symptoms and precautions. I know when my oxygen levels are dropping and take a breather when I need to. I’ve become early menopausal because of chemotherapy, and I’m so grateful for my girl and the blessing of being her mom.
I look at life through the lens of it not being promised, yet so thankful for each day given. Motherhood with cancer has been a beautifully challenging, yet amazingly rewarding, endeavor.
I have learned to find glimpses of joy in the mundane. I have learned to embrace life’s curveballs — no matter how hardheaded I can be. I have learned thankfulness for the spilled milk and endless piles of laundry. And most importantly, I have learned patience within myself to take it one day at a time and to remind myself to not give in to the false accusations that pop up within my own anxiety. I am a good mom and I didn’t fail myself or my baby girl. Because momma, that’s all you can do! This is what motherhood with cancer has looked like for me. It’s giving up the life I planned for the life greeting me, the story we have, and the chance to share it.