‘Congrats, it’s a boy!’ Not even 48 hours later, the doctor pulled up a chair. ‘You have a large mass in your chest that is likely cancer.’: Woman shocked with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis days after giving birth, ‘I had too much to fight for’

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“The morning of July 25th, 2018, I sat in a hospital bed nursing my newborn son when I received the most unexpected and gut-punching news. It had been just over a week since my youngest son had been born; he had been released from the NICU only 2 days prior, but I had been re-admitted to the hospital due to preeclampsia complications. We had one night at home as a healthy family of 6, or so I thought.

Not even 48 hours later, I was listening as the unfortunate Obstetrician on duty that day pulled up a chair (it was all very Grey’s Anatomy actually…) and solemnly stated, ‘You have a large, 9cm mass in your chest that is likely cancer.’

Not the words I was expecting to hear. They had performed a CT scan the night before in my chest to make sure I didn’t have any blood clots from my cesarean surgery the previous week. I asked her if she thought it was breast cancer. Breastfeeding my son was incredibly important to me, and I knew breast cancer would mean that I would almost surely have to give that up.

She responded saying that the mass was located in my chest cavity and it was growing around my heart, near my left lung, but it was not in my breast itself. I would be able to continue breastfeeding for now, and we wouldn’t know for sure if the mass was cancer until it was biopsied. But there was a high probability that it was. She spoke a bit more and then ended the discussion by asking me if I had any questions. I had a million, but I couldn’t formulate any into words. I dismissed her with a ‘thank you’ and sat on my hospital bed in stunned silence while my poor husband tried to offer me comfort.

I couldn’t tell you what Brent said, but I remember thinking that he must be so scared. Here we were, newlyweds of just four months with four children together, (Yes, we waited a while to tie the knot…) one of whom was just over a week old, and there was a very sudden and very real chance that I may not be around to help raise our children to adulthood. Thoughts swirled around in my head, the forefront being that Brent’s own grandfather had given up his career to care for his wife with cancer. She ultimately lost her battle with it, and his grandfather went on to raise his 3 sons all by himself.

They say history repeats itself… we even have 3 sons like he did, along with our oldest that is a girl. Still, the similarities are there. Was he being sentenced to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps? I prayed that wouldn’t be the case.

I sent Brent into the hallway to call my mom to let her know what was going on and I sat in silence on my hospital bed, staring down at my sleeping newborn and just thinking that this couldn’t be happening. Five minutes ago, I was hopeful that we would be released to go back home with a clean bill of health to continue our lives together as a family of 6. Now our future was nothing, but a jumble of unanswered questions and my worst fears come to life.

Minutes or hours later, time had ceased making sense at that point. My mom walked into the room and I could see that she was struggling to keep it together. I knew she had to be thinking about the loss of her mother to cancer, about her father currently being treated for cancer, and now the probability of her oldest daughter having to fight cancer as well. I sought to comfort my mother and told her I was too strong to let cancer take me out, that I was going to beat this no matter what, and it was true. Of course, I was terrified, but I’m a mother of 4 and a wife to the most incredible man; I had too much to fight for to let cancer take me down.

Fast forward a few weeks and I had several different scans completed, two biopsies (thefirst one having been inconclusive), a surgical procedure completed, countless blood draws, and in between all of this we were functioning as much as possible as a happy family while we didn’t have an official diagnosis. I bonded with sweet Malcolm and soaked up every precious moment breastfeeding him that I could, knowing that if I did have cancer, I would likely need chemotherapy, and the two don’t mix.

I get some crazy reactions from people when I talk about how much I love breastfeeding. Granted, I’ve had my fair share of struggles with it. Latching issues with my first-born, supply issues with my first and second babies. Ultimately, there is absolutely nothing in the world as special as the bond between a mother and her baby when they are breastfeeding. With Malcolm being the final addition to our family, I had been looking forward to breastfeeding him more than anything else, and I intended to enjoy every single moment of it since I wouldn’t get to have that experience ever again after him. And those were my feelings before the added possibility of cancer. The desperation I felt to retain that breastfeeding bond for as long as possible was palpable.

On August 31, 2018 I was given my official diagnosis: I have cancer. Aggressive Stage II Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (Non-Hodgkin’s) to be exact. It was a relief to have a diagnosis, because with it came a treatment plan. Chemotherapy and radiation were the only proven successful treatment options for my specific kind of cancer, and the chemotherapy would be aggressive to match my aggressive cancer that, I was told, was growing daily. My oncologist had more bad news to deliver alongside his diagnosis: confirmation that I would have to stop breastfeeding since the chemo would make my breast milk toxic to my son. I asked him if I could ‘pump and dump’ to retain my milk supply in hopes of resuming breastfeeding again later on. He informed me that chemotherapy often causes breast milk production to stop even while continuing to pump. On top of that, putting my body through the added stress and physical effort of pumping can do more harm than good. But ultimately, he told me that I was welcome to try if I wanted to.

Cancer had already robbed me of those first precious weeks of soaking in the pure joy and happiness that accompanies bringing home a new baby, or it had tainted it at least. I was not about to sit back and let it take away the possibility of ever breastfeeding my son again. Not without a fight. Ultimately it was out of my control whether the chemo, or the steroids I would be put on, or the added stress my body would be under, killed off my milk supply. But if I didn’t at least try to pump in an attempt to keep it, which was something I could control, then I would be allowing cancer to take another thing away from me AND my baby. I had to try.

I walked out of my oncologist’s office with a list of different kinds of chemotherapy and steroids I would be given, and I took to my computer for research. Information online is incredibly limited on the subject, but I did read about one success story. It was one, but it still gave me hope. The article summarized that a mother was able to breastfeed her baby for 2 days out of each month while undergoing chemo, and that hope was HUGE for me. Even 2 days of breastfeeding each month would allow a baby to remember how to latch, and by the end of the chemo treatments, in theory, you could resume nursing your baby like normal. That was the goal I set my sights on.

Husband holds newborn while he kisses wife with Hodgkin's lymphoma
Courtesy Nicole Heying

I made some calls to my licensed nurse/lactation consultant and met up with her the following day. She got in touch with the doctor who, quite literally, wrote the book on every kind of medication known to end up in breast milk and the lengths of time it takes for those medications to leave your system and be safe for breastfeeding.

She informed me that one of my kinds of chemo would be in my system for 7 days and my heart began to bloom with hope. The second kind of chemo would be in my system for 12 days, my hopes grew more. The third kind of chemo lasted even longer, 14 days. But that would still allow me the ability to breastfeed Malcolm for 7 days each month. Then she gave me the news that I had been dreading. The fourth kind of chemotherapy that I would be receiving remained in breast milk for 35 days. I was going to be getting my treatments every 21 days for the next 6 months, which meant that I would actually be overlapping in that chemo medication, never allowing for even one day to a month to latch Malcolm to my breast.

The hopes that were building within me came crashing down; after 6 months strictly on a bottle, most babies would look at a breast and wouldn’t even associate it with feeding, let alone latch without working even longer to resume breastfeeding. I had to come up with a plan if I wanted to resume breastfeeding as soon as my treatments were completed. The only option I could come up with was to find a family member or friend who might be willing to latch Malcolm to their breast once a week, so he would remember how to do it if and when the time came for me to try. This proved more difficult than it seems because of my emotional attachment to the situation. I wasn’t sure that I could even handle seeing another woman breastfeed my son when I couldn’t. But I had to weigh my options: I could either try this with the possibility of successfully reaching my goal of resuming breastfeeding, or I could decide that this was too much and opt out entirely. I chose the former.

Baby breastfeeds from mom who has Hodgkin's lymphoma
Courtesy Nicole Heying

With the decision made, I continued to pump my breast milk every 3 hours, day-in and day-out, and pour it down the drain. It was exhausting and annoying having to set alarms, having to tote my breast pump with me everywhere I went, to excuse myself to pump regardless of where I was or what I was doing. I even sat in my chemo chair throughout my 8+ hours of treatment in a room filled with people and still pumped just to pour it down the drain. Anyone who ever said that there’s ‘no use crying over spilled milk’ never breastfed. Every single drop of breast milk is precious; it’s liquid gold. It went against every fiber of my being pouring that precious milk down the drain. I hated it, but I did it for my baby and I did it for myself. I promised myself that if I was successful by the end of this, that I would try to share my journey with as many women as possible. I wanted other women who might go through something similar to be able to hear about a success story. I prayed I would have a success story to share.

Doctor injects fluid into woman's IV who has Hodgkin's lymphoma
Courtesy Nicole Heying

Nine days after beginning chemotherapy, an amazing friend of mine, Bec, whose son was born a week after Malcolm, offered to breastfeed Malcolm once a day for 1-2 days out of the week. I was nervous about how I would handle it emotionally, and whether or not Malcolm would even latch to a stranger, but it went off without a hitch. I was so incredibly thrilled that he latched and breastfed that I wasn’t even focused on feeling upset. My amazing and selfless friend did this for 6 months straight, allowing Malcolm to remember how to latch onto a breast, while still getting most of his sustenance from a bottle. It is an amazing gift that she gave both my son and myself, and I’ll never be able to repay her for it. Additionally, she pumped her milk and donated it to Malcolm as well, along with other incredible mothers out there who donated to us, so he received breast milk throughout the entire 6 months of my treatment.

Woman breastfeeds baby boy whose mother has Hodgkin's lymphoma
Courtesy Nicole Heying

My chemo treatments were completed on January 7, 2019, at which point the countdown began for when I would be able to attempt to breastfeed my son again.

On day 36 post-chemo, Malcolm woke up in the middle of the night for his 3 a.m. feeding. I picked up my drowsy, hungry baby and offered him my breast for the first time in 6 months, and I cried tears of joy and relief when he latched immediately and fed off my breast. And just like that, I had my success story. Everything I had been working so incredibly hard for came to fruition in that moment and it made all worth it.

And now comes the fulfillment of the promise I made myself. This is me, sharing my journey with as many people as possible in the hopes that it might inspire others or offer comfort to someone going through something similar. Breastfeeding is the most natural, beautiful gift that women have been given to nourish their babies. Sure, it can be difficult sometimes, but it is SO worth it. Thank you for caring enough to read my story. Thank you for fighting alongside me, for rooting for my success. Thank you for being one of my many reasons to fight. God bless.”

Mother with Hodgkin's lymphoma and shaved head smiles in selfie with her baby boy
Courtesy Nicole Heying

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Heying of Lancaster, California. Follow her journey on Instagram here and her website hereDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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