In May 2007, I discovered that the lump in my left breast, which I had noticed a year earlier, felt bigger and harder. (Back in '06, my gynecologist thought it was a harmless cyst. I was 27 and had no family history of breast cancer.) A few days later, after a mammogram and an ultrasound, a specialist confirmed it was cancer. I couldn't believe it; I had just run a marathon and was in the best shape of my life. When I learned the cancer was aggressive and had spread to three lymph nodes, I sobbed in disbelief.
The next weeks were a blur. I had MRIs, CT scans, a bone scan to see if the cancer had invaded my bones and organs (luckily, it hadn't), and a scan to make sure my heart could withstand chemotherapy. I faced six months of chemo and then possibly a mastectomy and radiation.
The hospital gave me a pregnancy test before my scans; it came back negative. My husband, Dustin, and I had been trying to conceive, but I was relieved. My doctors said that if it was positive, I'd have to end the pregnancy; treatment, which I needed to start immediately, wouldn't be safe for a fetus until after the first trimester.
But my period never came, so two weeks later, I took an at-home pregnancy test. It was positive! I wanted to be excited, but I was terrified. Friends suggested that I get a second opinion. We happened to be moving from Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio, and that's how we met Charles Shapiro, M.D., at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Care Center. He told us we could keep the pregnancy while treating the cancer with little risk to the fetus.
Dustin and I sat with our parents to discuss what to do. They all stressed that the decision was up to us and assured us that they would support us no matter what we decided. My mind was made up: I wanted the baby. Cancer wasn't going to take him or her away from me.
We forged ahead as bravely as we could, but it wasn't easy. I was emotional. It was especially hard seeing other pregnant women. I'd think, "They can picture a lifetime with their baby." All I could do was take it day by day. I tried not to think of milestones I might miss.
Fortunately, ultrasounds showed that the fetus was growing normally, and I began chemo at 12 weeks (the drugs I received couldn't cross the placenta). I had an amazing support system -- my husband, family, friends -- but I was so scared and alone. Nobody I knew could relate. I agonized over the thought of leaving my baby girl without a mother. I pictured her screaming my name in the night and me not being there, or Dustin dressing her in crooked pigtails and mismatched clothes. At the same time, the baby gave me a reason to fight. I would yell at the cancer, telling it to leave us alone.
At 29 weeks, when the baby was old enough to survive if I were to go into preterm labor, I had a mastectomy to remove my left breast. I needed to wait to start reconstruction because my doctor didn't want me to undergo any unnecessary surgeries while pregnant. Physically, I was okay, but the operation took a huge emotional toll. I walked around the house in my husband's T-shirts. I couldn't look in the mirror.
Thirteen days after surgery, on November 27, 2007, everything changed. I called my ob-gyn because I hadn't felt the baby move much that morning. My doctor told me to go straight to labor and delivery. We learned the baby's heart rate was low and she might be in fetal distress. I had an emergency C-section and, at 31 weeks, my daughter Addison was born weighing 3 pounds, 6 ounces. I no longer had the luxury of dwelling on my missing breast. Addison became my first concern.
During Addison's four-week NICU stay, I was on a break from chemo because my doctors wanted me to rest before I started Taxol and Herceptin, which are unsafe in pregnancy. I was allowed to nurse, but she was so little she couldn't latch, and I hardly got any milk from my one breast anyway. When we brought Addison home on Christmas Day, we were ecstatic, but our journey wasn't over. Caring for a newborn is challenging under any circumstances, much less when you're fighting cancer. In addition to the meds, I had radiation five times a week for seven weeks. My mom and mother-in-law would watch Addison when I went in for treatments. I was nauseated and unbelievably fatigued. Plus, being on Taxol left me in intense pain. My fingers were so numb, I couldn't snap Addison's Onesies.
Finally, I finished treatment, and Dustin and I dared to start thinking about having another baby. When Addison was 14 months, my doctor gave us the green light to try. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to conceive; I'd read that the chemo and radiation gave me up to a 75 percent chance of becoming infertile. But after four months, I got pregnant again. Our son, Chase, was born in January 2010.
I'm now in remission. I don't dwell on statistics, but I know the numbers: a 50 percent chance of recurrence, until I'm five years out. In April, I had my left breast reconstructed. I'll have three more surgeries until it's rebuilt. What's great: I had no trouble nursing Chase from my right breast.
Because of all that I've been through, I truly do live life to the fullest. I kiss my babies more than I ever thought possible. I savor every smell -- yes, even spit-up. I miss them when they're asleep. When they cry and whine, I usually don't get frustrated. I've always had a type-A personality, and cancer didn't change that. But now I find that I don't sweat the small stuff -- I can step back and look at the big picture. I think I would have been a wonderful mother had I not had cancer, but I am a better mom because of it.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.