“‘Sir, you have kidney cancer.’ The words you never think you’ll hear, yet fear hearing the most. I was 28 years old when I heard them mentioned in reference to my then 32-year-old husband Joel. It was shocking. We were in the best shape of our lives. Had just run our first half-marathon a month prior. The only indication of anything wrong was the blood he had noticed in his urine -kidney stones, we had assumed. Yet here we were ,standing in front of his Urologist, finding out things were worse, much worse.
For the next year of our lives, cancer consumed us. We fought harder than we had at anything before. From a surgery to remove one of his kidneys and the cancer that engulfed it – to flying back and forth between our home state of Oklahoma to one of the top cancer hospitals in Houston for treatment. Simply put, there was nothing we wouldn’t do. Chemo infusions were a normal part of our lives, as was spending most of our days at home as not to catch any germs that could possibly wreak havoc on his already delicate immune system. It was the most difficult road we had ever walked and I found myself time and time again wondering if there would truly ever be light at the end of this very dark tunnel.
Finally, a full year later, the light came. The words we had been longing to hear. Remission. We were so grateful and thought the worst was behind us. Immediately we jumped back into what we had focused on pre-cancer, having a baby. You see, before cancer became our biggest obstacle, infertility was. The 5 years before Joel’s illness had been filled with trips to doctors, tests, medicines, anything and everything we could do to get pregnant. The diagnosis of ‘unexplained infertility’ was frustrating to say the least. We had finally gotten to the point where they told us IVF was our only option. Our first doctor’s appointment to begin had already been set, and then… cancer. Everything baby was now, of course, on hold. It was hard to shift gears from one battle to another, but we did. One good thing, because we had already been in the baby mindset, we knew chemo could mess with a man’s sperm, possibly even rendering him sterile. Before Joel began his first round of chemo, we chose to freeze his sperm – a decision that would change our lives forever. Since we already had his part in place, we were able to move forward with IVF as soon as cancer was behind us.
Once he went into remission the moment had come. After years of trying to conceive, I was as shocked as anyone to find out, on our very first IVF attempt, we were pregnant. Initially it was with twins, one of whom I sadly lost in my 11th week of pregnancy. Every day for the duration of my pregnancy, I prayed my remaining child would enter this world healthy and full of life. Yet before that could happen (a few days before my due date) we were sitting in a hospital waiting, not on a baby, but for a biopsy. A routine CT scan had shown an ‘area of concern,’ this time on Joel’s lung. They wanted to test out the spot immediately to see what it could be. We knew. We didn’t want to know. But we knew.
A few days later I gave birth to a healthy bay boy, Milo. Two days after, we got the results of the biopsy. Cancer. The only thing worse than hearing that word said once, is hearing it again after you’ve already fought so hard. We wanted to enjoy being parents to our child but instead we were once again fighting for Joel’s life. He jumped right back into chemo. We did it all over again, only this time with a baby. It was hard, doubly hard. But we pressed on, because now the stakes were even higher.
Another year passed, but this time the chemo didn’t do its job to take the cancer completely away. A surgery was recommended to remove a portion of his lung where the cancer resided. We were leery but felt like it was our only option. The cancer was getting ahead of us this time, and we felt that with every ounce our being. So onward we went, to the next surgery, hoping yet for another chance at remission, and another shot at life again.
It was not to be. After his surgery, Joel had a devastating stroke. Followed by rehab to try to regain use of his body. Followed by another stroke. Then another stroke, to which he never recovered. On July 23, 2013, at the age of 35, Joel passed away. I was now a widow and a single mom to a 1-year-old baby boy. I thought my life was over. I didn’t know where to even start to begin again.
I waded through grief and despair taking it one day at a time, because quite frankly, one day was all I had to give. During the entire process there was a thought in my head and an unusual decision to be made. You see, because of our battle with infertility, two embryos were left over from our first round. Every hospital is different, but ours didn’t believe in destroying them, so I had to eventually decide what that meant for me. My mind was playing a conversation I had with Joel in an endless loop. When he was in rehab, Joel told me we need to have a talk. ‘You and I are going to have another baby,’ he said. ‘It will be a girl, you know what to name her.’
Ellis was the name we had planned for a girl. But looking at him in that hospital bed, it seemed unimaginable – now, after his death, it seemed… possible? I wrestled with the decision, talked to friends, family; the list went on and on. Finally, I decided to give it a shot – if it were meant to be, it would be. I had the embryos implanted. I became pregnant, with a baby girl. I gave birth to this unbelievably gorgeous and healthy baby a year and a half after her father’s death. Of course you know what I named her, Ellis Claire.
That’s where the story should end. On that last, beautiful sentence, only sometimes life takes a turn, and ours was about to take another devastating one. At only two weeks old, Ellis woke up one morning warm and lethargic. Her pediatrician advised us to bring her in. They immediately sent us to the hospital. By that evening my daughter was on a ventilator, fighting for her life, having just received the grim diagnosis of both sepsis and bacterial meningitis. How could this be happening? Not again.
I was brought to my knees, because it was the only place I knew to turn. We are people of faith, and though I had begged God for the life of her father even after his death, I found myself still believing He could do the impossible and save Ellis’. For weeks I held onto whatever shred of belief I could muster as I watched my baby girl rapidly deteriorate. Scan after scan revealed global, irreversible brain damage. They told us her scans were ‘incompatible with life’ and our only option was to remove her from a ventilator and say goodbye.
It seemed incomprehensible, after losing her father; I would now lose her too. But the day had come to say goodbye. They removed all the tubes, all the chords, all the wires and put her on my bare chest to say goodbye. Only she didn’t die. As I rocked her back and forth, skin-to-skin, she suddenly began to breathe on her own, after not breathing on her vent in a week. Her vitals for weeks had been wildly inconsistent, now stabilized and became normal. She stopped the seizing she had been doing non-stop for weeks. By the next day we were out of the PICU and Ellis was in my arms taking a bottle. Doctors and nurses came from all over the hospital to our room to see the ‘miracle baby.’ Few could believe what was before their eyes.
That miracle baby is now 4-years old. Her journey towards recovery is ongoing with therapies and the like. But she has already done many of the things they said she would never do. Ellis has never had to have a vent, or a feeding tube. She has begun steps towards walking with assistance in her kid-walker and even started pre-school this year. Most of all, the baby they said would be a vegetable, is far from that. She’s the sassiest member of our family and one of the most loved kids in her class. Her life is a testament to the impossible, and beauty from ashes, in more ways than I can list. She is a world-changer, that one. And reminds me the true meaning of the word ‘hope’ more and more every day.
As for the widow whose life was over? Well there was beauty to come for me too. Three years after the death of my late husband, I reconnected with my high school sweetheart DeAngelo, and found our deep love we had as children had grown even deeper as adults. We married two years ago and blended our family of five kiddos into one crazy big household.
And the girl who was never able to conceive? Well she did so naturally. Our surprise 6th baby was born this week, completing our family. All of this depth of joy, love, and meaning in life is something I could’ve never dreamed of.
In our darkest moments, when I wanted to give up the most, I could’ve never imagined all that was to come. That’s what I tell people now going through difficult moments. Keep going. Your life is not over, you never know what chapters are to come. Your greatest ones are still ahead. I hope our journey ignites in you, this: nothing is ever too broken, too far gone, too lost, or too hopeless – to be made new again. I’ve seen it said and now I’ve seen it come true, for that I’ve never been so grateful.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Rhodes of Norman, Oklahoma. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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