Spying the IV pump a clear liquid through about 6 feet of tubing that eventually found its way to the porta-catheter on my chest, I’m compelled to think that I’m the most selfish mother in the world and don’t deserve this baby. An hour earlier, I was wheeled directly from recovery after having the port surgically inserted up to infusion. Do Not Pass Go, do not collect a day to recover in between. Such was the sense of urgency in my particular situation, diagnosed with Stage 3A lobular breast cancer two weeks after I told my family I was pregnant. I was the last patient in Infusion that afternoon, and having never had chemo before and not understanding all the beeps and boops the infusion pumps make, I worried that the machine I had was broken and was emitting some kind of warning that no one was hearing. Watching that chemo pump closer and closer to my newly bandaged chest felt like I was watching a poison inch closer and closer to my unborn baby. My imagination allowed me to go to the darkest places, like wondering what this toxin was doing to my little baby. I had no other option; I had to trust my doctors. I couldn’t speak; I just cried.
My doctors planned a mastectomy at 14 weeks, six rounds of chemo before my baby, and four rounds after, plus 6 weeks radiation. It’s an agonizing thing, to be simultaneously nurturing and loving a tiny living thing in your body, while aggressively, frantically killing another. During my infusions, I was bald and flat-chested, not unlike most patients, but my belly was growing each week, so the other survivors around me grew more interested in my baby. Most commonly, they wanted to know how such a thing was possible, that you could take chemo and grow a baby at the same time. I had no real answer, other than all I wanted was a little sushi! But the truth is that I had some incredible doctors who put our plan into action, and we were hoping for the best. She became everyone’s baby, something to pray for, to look forward to, something to take them out of their own minds for a while. She grew like nothing was amiss. Any side effects I suffered fell into the “pregno-therapy” category, meaning the severe fatigue I felt, or the endless stomach upset could have been caused by the chemo, or by the pregnancy, who knows? Overall, I had it easy, no nausea, decent appetite, and best of all, my mom, a nurse, to help me during the rough times.
During those rough times, it was immeasurably consoling to read other stories about moms who were pregnant with cancer on the “Hope for Two” website. I was desperate to read about the success stories… to know that it was entirely possible, and even permissible, to plan for my future with my baby. Seeing pictures of healthy, happy babies with healthy, happy moms is an astonishing motivator. Finding this website was a pivotal point in my outlook; it was the day I put down the books about breast cancer and picked up the books about parenting.
Harper came seven weeks premature, with help from the NICU, and prayers and support from parents, family, friends, and scores of absolute strangers enabled her to go home just 18 days later. She saved my life, by forcing me to focus on the happy future, and it gradually became clear to me that she had chosen me, and I did deserve to be her mom.
Appreciating that she wasn’t just “my” baby anymore, I brought Harper to see all my friends at Infusion, who don’t often see a vibrant, happy baby in the waiting room! She also came to my radiation appointments, and was passed around the office while I was being “microwaved”. For those few minutes she was able to be an adorable reminder that Hope was, indeed, the most effective way to fight cancer.
I know that others have voiced this, but I am amazed at how much having breast cancer has given me. For example, I remained in contact with two of Harper’s NICU nurses and I consider them to be my dearest friends. Imagine knowing that these two women held and nurtured my baby when she was so small and fragile… They have watched her grow and thrive, and watched me recover and return to my “normal” state! Unfortunately, one of these women has since been diagnosed herself with breast cancer. Through fundraising and awareness, we have both resolved to ensure that our daughters won’t ever know such a diagnosis.
Also, most gratefully, my priorities have shifted for the better. It is my goal to have my daughter’s memories of me be of unconditional love and presence. The dishes, the laundry, the work can all wait, because I will never get this moment back with my little girl.
I am 38 now and have taken up jogging. Harper just celebrated her third birthday and I am delighted to report that she is feisty, precocious, and growing like a weed. I still don’t know how I can ever deserve her, but I am going to try, as long as I wake up each morning and am alive to enjoy her.