“I remember checking the clock on Wednesday, January 20, 2021 almost constantly. When 4 p.m. rolled around, I felt relieved. I figured the phone call would most likely not come so late in the day and it felt like I had dodged a bullet. Another night to be blissfully ignorant.
I busied myself with some work on my laptop, feeling reassured that I would have a reprieve from the worry of if/when a phone call would be coming in until tomorrow morning. My nerves needed the break.
But then, at 4:30 p.m., my phone rang.
My heart stopped.
I checked the caller ID and low and behold, it was the hospital. My 3-year-old daughter sat just feet away at our dining room table, playing cheerfully with her toys, completely unaware of the weight this phone call held on our family. My husband and high school sweetheart, Matt, had heard my phone ring and was immediately by my side. Without him asking I quickly said, ‘It’s the hospital,’ and slid my finger over the screen to pick up the call and put it on speakerphone.
‘Hello?’ I said, trying to sound calm and like I hadn’t had my phone within arm’s reach of me the entire day. ‘Hi, Mandy. It’s Nicole. How are you doing?’ the voice on the other end of the line said. Okay, this is good, I thought. She’s asking how I’m doing and making a little small talk. The news must not be that bad. My nerves relaxed a bit.
‘I’m doing well,’ I lied. ‘Hopefully, I’ll be doing even better after our phone call!’ I giggled a little, gauging her reaction (or lack thereof) very carefully.
There was none. Just a brief pause.
‘Well I wanted to call and tell you that the pathology from your biopsy came back,’ she said. Matt reached for my hand and squeezed. I held my breath.
‘And quite surprisingly –’
‘This is in fact breast cancer.’
I sat there, stunned, with my eyes focused on my sweet daughter who continued to play happily. I could feel Matt’s arms slide around me and grip me tightly. Nicole began to talk and give me important details and facts about the cancer that was in my breast. Matt grabbed the nearest piece of paper, a heating bill, and began to write everything down – his first day on the job in his new role as ‘Mandy’s medical scribe.’
After she had divulged the laundry list of information I needed to know, she paused. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
I could hear her question in that moment was not from a medical professional, but from a fellow young mother I had struck up a kind of friendship with over the past few weeks in the exploration of the strange changes my breast had been going through: a red rash, an indented area on my breast, an areola that looked like an orange peel, and a nipple that no longer protruded. No lump.
‘I’m just worried about the baby,’ I said.
You see, that phone call changed my life forever because not only was I being diagnosed with breast cancer at only 32 years old…I was being diagnosed as a pregnant woman. I was 17 weeks pregnant with our second child, another girl.
Nicole, without missing a beat, said, ‘We view this as treating two people, not just one. You can safely receive treatment while you’re pregnant. We’re going to get you through this.’
I had no idea what my life was going to look like, but a calm came over me at her words. She sounded so confident that it gave me a sense of empowerment and courage, but most of all, it gave me hope.
After meeting with my cancer team, we received a fuller picture of what I was facing. I was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma, breast cancer that begins in the milk ducts and spreads outward, sometimes (like in my case), reaching the skin. I would need chemo, a mastectomy, and radiation – with chemo taking place during my pregnancy and the rest of the treatment happening after giving birth. After a blood test revealed I carried a gene mutation called BRCA2, I would also need to have my ovaries removed. While it was certainly overwhelming to receive all of this news, it also felt relieving to have a plan in place and to know what was coming down the pike. Having a road map of sorts made me feel like I was prepared in some small way for the journey ahead.
One week after initially meeting my team, I found myself sitting in a comfortable, heated recliner at the infusion center, waiting to receive my first round of chemotherapy. My little baby bump was barely noticeable under the baggy sweatshirt I chose to wear. I was nervous but upbeat.
Due to COVID-19, visitors were not allowed in the infusion center. However, my chemo nurse, Barb, was an angel on earth. It turned out we lived in the same area of town, knew similar people, had similar senses of humor, and were both moms. She made me feel surrounded by the love of family when my actual family was not able to be present.
I watched as Barb carefully unwrapped and double-checked my first chemotherapy drug. It was encased in a giant syringe-like something you’d see in a cartoon and was bright red. I learned the nickname for this drug was ‘The Red Devil,’ which seemed fitting for its intimidating color (and side effects). As soon as I saw it, everything became very real, and the reality that I was about to put strong chemicals into my body while another life was growing in that same body hit me fast and hard.
Barb pulled up a chair, sat next to me, slowly inserted the syringe into my IV, and ever so carefully began pushing the bright red chemo drug into my vein. Barb calmly talked to me about her family and asked questions about mine. It was like going to lunch with a friend – only with poisonous drugs. It was official, I was a pregnant woman taking chemo. Amazingly, I had minimal side effects from the chemotherapy I received: some annoying acid reflux and days of fatigue was the worst of it.
While going through cancer treatment can certainly be a lonesome experience for many people, I had the incredible gift of never being alone with my growing baby girl snug as a bug in my womb. Feeling her move, roll, kick and hiccup during so many lonely moments – like being inside of an MRI machine – was always a miraculous reminder that there were two of us in this fight, and that reminder would give me the strength I needed to keep going.
Over the course of five months, we were constantly balancing a never-ending task list of tests, appointments, an autism diagnosis, and therapies for my 3-year-old (she was diagnosed 6 days after my cancer diagnosis – another story for another day), chemo, and baby ultrasounds. Some days we would have three or four different appointments with different doctors. Matt, while recently updating records, calculated the number of cancer/pregnancy medical appointments from 2021 – it added up to 224 in total. This does not even include the weekly autism therapy appointments for my daughter. My full-time job was being a pregnant woman with cancer and a special needs child– a job that I didn’t even know existed only a few months prior.
While it was a lot to manage, it felt like a constant and steady race. The first big stop along that race route was giving birth. Three weeks after receiving my 13th round of chemotherapy, on June 10, 2021, Matt and I were able to officially meet our second child.
As I lay spread eagle on the delivery bed about to push our daughter into the world amongst a flurry of doctors and nurses, Matt grabbed my hand and squeezed, just as he had done when we received the news of my breast cancer diagnosis five months earlier. Our eyes met, and he smiled. If there’s anything we had learned since January, it was the existence of feeling two differing feelings at once – his eyes looked tired, and a little worried but they were also filled with admiration and anticipation.
I was feeling two differing feelings as well– so happy and grateful to finally be at this moment, but also overwhelmed and scared at what this moment really meant: I would officially be on my own for the rest of my cancer journey.
‘I’m scared,’ I whispered to Matt.
‘It’s going to be okay,’ he whispered back.
He stroked my hair and continued to smile at me as the doctor said, ‘Okay! We’re ready. Give a little push.’
In an instant, our little sweetheart was laid on my chest. She was slightly early and a little small (5 lbs. 5 oz.), but she was perfect and her little cries told us that she was working perfectly – no evidence whatsoever that she had been through 13 rounds of chemotherapy. Tears filled my eyes, and I pulled a warm blanket around her and continuously kissed her tiny forehead. ‘Hi, Hope,’ I said as she snuggled against my chest and stopped crying.
Despite a little hiccup after giving birth (I was re-admitted to the hospital for postpartum preeclampsia; most likely my body’s reaction to the stress of chemo and labor/delivery), I had a single mastectomy to remove my cancerous breast just 18 days after welcoming Hope to the world.
The surgery pathology revealed the best possible scenario: I had a complete response to chemotherapy and there was no remaining cancer located in my removed breast. I found it absolutely remarkable that my breast had essentially been cured of cancer while I was pregnant. Medical science is truly a miracle.
Since then, I’ve received 30 rounds of radiation, my now 4-year-old began preschool, baby Hope has been growing and meeting her milestones (she’s on the verge of learning to crawl as I type this), Matt has started outlining a book to write about our experience as a couple and family, and I’ve had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed putting me into menopause. Soon I will begin a new medication that will hopefully help prevent my cancer from coming back or keep a new cancer from developing. It has been a wild but exciting ride.
1 in 3,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with cancer. If you find yourself becoming a member of this undesirable club, allow yourself to feel your emotions whatever they may be – panic, shock, overwhelm, sadness, grief – and then call us other club members. We’re surprisingly easy to find, especially on social media (simply search the hashtag #cancerandpregnancy), and all of us are part of a unique sisterhood that will not only welcome you with open arms but will be by your side through it all. We know how you feel and we understand the wide range of emotions that come with this diagnosis. We are here for you.
Another incredible source of information and hope is the Cancer and Pregnancy Registry. This amazing research database of women who have been treated for cancer while pregnant is managed by the world-leading expert in cancer and pregnancy, Dr. Elyce Cardonick. Because of the research, she has done, mothers and their babies have more treatment options and their lives are being saved. Dr. Cardonick has made herself available to pregnant women facing cancer and can do everything from serving as a consultant in your cancer treatment plan to providing hopeful stories of other women in a situation similar to your own. No matter your need for her involvement in your journey, she is willing to help, encourage and support.
My hope is that when people hear my story that they are filled with a renewal of energy in knowing that difficult moments will happen in our lives…but ‘difficult’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘impossible.’ You CAN do hard things and you CAN be triumphant.
Don’t ever, ever give up.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mandy Geyman from Cincinnati, Ohio. You can follow her experience on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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