Facing Cancer and a Baby
It was early January 2009, and my wife's eyes were soaked with tears as she told me that she was pregnant.
I remember the moment with crystal clarity, and not for the reasons that one might envision. Just about two months prior, my wife had been diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, which is an early form of breast cancer. As far as such things go, DCIS is very manageable and pales next to other forms of breast cancer, and other cancers. In fact, some refer to DCIS as "pre-cancer."
In the last two months of 2008, my wife and I had gone about planning for her treatment, which was to be straightforward and include a single-side mastectomy and, potentially, some form of radiation or chemotherapy, although the latter was unlikely to be needed. We were very fortunate to be under the care of one of the world's leading cancer hospitals, which is not far from our home. Our insurance would cover the procedure, including reconstructive surgery - itself no small victory given the largely "cash-only" sub-culture of plastic surgeons in our area. Surgery was scheduled for mid-January.
We knew immediately that the pregnancy would bring about many complications insofar as the cancer treatment was concerned. Generally speaking, our understanding was that a pregnant woman who has cancer faces a terrible decision: either proceed with cancer treatment that is likely to terminate the pregnancy, or postpone the treatment until after delivery, creating risks that the cancer will spread. This chilling reality was at the front of our minds that night in January 2009, and we started talking over what might come next. Our thoughts made us both numb. We felt helpless.
We contacted the cancer hospital immediately, and things quickly got worse. A nurse emailed to tell my wife that the hospital does not treat pregnant women. So did the breast surgeon, who suggested that we'd really only have a problem should we "opt" to continue the pregnancy. As to the baby's life, both were neutral, and coldly indifferent. In fact, conventional medical wisdom seemed to be that my wife would "simply" abort her pregnancy. That was the clinical default, and I belive, the expectation of us.
In the past two and a half years, I've tried not to be judgmental about their mindset, but I've never been able to rationalize the near-universal tone of indifference to the baby's life, or the fact that my wife and I were the ones left to chart another option.
That's what we did, though, because we didn't like the alternatives we'd been given. As so many others do, we became our family's advocates, and the baby's. In the haze that had descended, we soon realized with unmistakable clarity that we would have find a different way forward ourselves. Our strong hunch was that our medical system could find a way to protect the baby's health, while protecting my wife's. The system wouldn't show us this path, though; finding it was left to us.
For the next few weeks, the strain was constant, and unyielding. We knew that we had to do something, and find answers quickly, which was no easy task as we tried to live our daily lives and weave through the medical (and insurance) labyrinth. I would sit up late at night, mindlessly starting at re-runs pondering things that all but paralyzed me. Because of the many questions, we had told virtually no one about this, not even close friends or family, and we were alone in a maze of despair and uncertainty. We went about our daily lives and work, but nothing much mattered.
One evening late that January, a breast surgeon at a prominent hospital (the same hospital where my son had been born) returned an email inquiry that we'd submitted by way of our OB-GYN. I'll never forget that e-mail. It brought me to tears, and still does: he told us he was thrilled to hear about the pregnancy, how happy he was for us. After weeks, this was the first time anyone had responded this way to the news. "We need to find a way to make sure we deliver your beautiful baby and make sure [my wife] is healthy!" This, at last, was the doctor we'd known we could find. He didn't need a consultation, or a deep discussion to understand what we wanted, or why, and from the outset he made sure we knew that he could make it happen.
And he did. About three weeks after that email arrived, that surgeon led a team of doctors and nurses that performed a single-side mastectomy using an advanced, but essentially local form of anesthesia that miraculously had no impact on our baby. In fact, during the surgery, my wife listened to the baby's heartbeat. The nurses and doctors asked my wife excitedly about the baby, our family. The baby has a big brother. He's two. My aunt thinks it's a girl, since she's already causing mischief. Big brother doesn't know yet that he's going to be a big brother. Soon you can tell him.
The surgery was a success, and the next day my wife and I sat in her hospital room and started talking - finally - about those joyous kinds of things that new parents chatter about. Is it a boy or a girl? What will the new big brother think about the new baby? What names do we like? A test result a few days later made the good news official: my wife was cancer-free, and would not need radiation. She'd have a long road of reconstructive procedures ahead. To this day, in fact, they are still not 100% complete. But we knew we'd get to meet our baby someday, and that my wife wasn't risking her life in the process.
I know that we aren't the only ones, not by far. We were one family in thousands upon thousands who have faced important, life-changing medical decisions. But it's still breathtaking to me. I strongly believe in Christian values and believe that life is sacred, but I'm not an especially religious person, and as much as I wish this were not the case, my faith is not strong. But there are times when I do believe in the benevolent God that I was taught to believe in, and when I do it is because of my family, and my little girl. Her middle name is "Zoey" - a name we'd picked years ago and, when my son was born, kept in mind for later. I don't know why, but throughout our ordeal, I'd forgotten something that I will forget again: the name Zoey is Greek for "life."
Looking back, the thought -- it is hope, really -- that God guided us through those difficult days will always be with me.
Our little girl with the middle name Zoey was born in August 2010 and turns two years old this week. She is sassy and opinionated and, like her mommy, is steely and full of purpose, and to me she's beyond extraordinary - she's a miracle, and a walking testament to the these beautiful gifts of life, and faith. Someday we may tell her about the things that I've talked about here. We may not.
In the meantime, Happy Birthday, my beautiful baby girl. I love you.
The author wishes to remain anonymous.