If you follow my work, you probably saw a newborn post that featured a perfect newborn baby boy with a pink ribbon. It was a simple but powerful image that to this day is one of those images that makes me so proud. Not just proud to have created it, but proud to know this family and to have been but a small part of their journey.
Michelle battled cancer throughout this pregnancy. This is something that was first for me in the studio, but sadly, not that uncommon. I really wanted to share more of her and this families story. Yes, its a read, but grab a coffee and enjoy. Spoiler...it is a happy ending :)
In September of 2012 I was 30 years old. I had been married for 7 months, we had just decided to try and grow our family, and then I felt a lump in my breast. Even though I figured it was nothing, I decided to have it checked out, just to put my mind at ease. Following a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, I was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma on October 3rd. I’ll remember that date forever. I had a lumpectomy that same month. I was lucky in that I had it early and didn’t require chemo, but after the lumpectomy, my pathology showed that the surgeon didn’t get clear margins, and I’d need to undergo a mastectomy to make sure it was actually all gone. Honestly, the idea of a mastectomy didn’t scare me – I even decided to do the other side prophylactically, to avoid having to deal with it ever again. My husband was extremely supportive of my decision, and I wanted to be sure I was putting it behind me, so in early January of 2013, I had a bilateral mastectomy. This time the pathology had come back all clear, and that was it. My cancer was gone. All I had to do now was a few years of hormone therapy, and finish up the reconstruction process with my plastic surgeon.
To complicate things a bit more, my husband had been in the process of applying to the RCMP when all of this happened, and left for six months of training in Regina the day before my surgery. We knew we would be moving when he graduated, but had no idea where, so on top of recovering from a bilateral mastectomy, and breast reconstruction, I also had to sell our house. It was a busy six months, but each challenge actually provided a good distraction from the other, and it went by quickly.
We ended up being posted to rural Manitoba, and I quickly transferred to an oncologist and plastic surgeon in Winnipeg and finished my reconstruction. We settled in and were getting used to our new lifestyle in the Prairies. After a lot of discussion with my oncologist, and being on hormone therapy medication for two years, we decided that my risk of recurrence was extremely low, and she was comfortable with me stopping the medication, which can cause birth defects, to try and start our family.
William, our first son, was born in September of 2016. It was a few years later than we had planned, but we were so happy he was finally here despite the bumps in the road that got us here. I was doing great, we were settling into our new role as parents, and cancer was becoming a distant memory. I even got to my 5 year cancer-free anniversary.
A couple of years later, William was almost 2, and we had transferred to another rural Manitoba community. After a lot of back and forth, we decided to try and have one more baby to complete our family. The risk of my cancer coming back was still so low, I had been doing great, and I was past the 5 year window which most recurrences happen, if they’re going to. I was about 7 weeks pregnant when I felt a new lump while doing my regular breast exam, before we had even told anyone that I was pregnant. We were actually leaving to visit family a few days later, so I tried to convince myself it was nothing, just scar tissue from my reconstruction, and we took our vacation. It was on my mind the entire time we were gone, and as soon as we got back, I booked an appointment to have it checked out. I ended up having a breast ultrasound and biopsy the same day as my first prenatal ultrasound and learned we were having another boy. It was definitely an emotional day.
A few days after that, at 12 weeks, I had a regular prenatal check up. I wasn’t expecting to get the biopsy results back for another week, but they had rushed them to my family doctor. He did all of the regular prenatal checks first, so I could enjoy that part, and then he told me that my cancer had come back. Even though I had been trying to prepare myself that this could be coming, I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had just heard my healthy baby’s heartbeat less than 5 minutes earlier, and now I had breast cancer again. At this point I had no idea what a recurrence meant for me, or the baby, or how it would affect a treatment plan.
The next few weeks were basically a blur of appointments and I felt like a zombie, walking around in a daze. I now had a new breast surgeon, a high risk OBGYN, a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist. When I had surgery at 18 weeks, I was already able to feel my new son moving. My first meeting with my medical oncologist destroyed my hopes of escaping chemo again. Unfortunately I wasn’t so lucky this time. Chemotherapy was strongly recommended, as was radiation and hormone therapy again. She and my OBGYN assured me that the type of chemo I would be given was safe for the baby. I did a lot of reading about this, because honestly, I had never heard of anyone having cancer during pregnancy before, let alone receiving chemo, but from everything I could find, it was safe.
I had my first round of chemo at 30 weeks. My medical oncologist had prepared me for the long list of possible side effects. I was anticipating the worst, but thankfully didn’t experience many of them. Although I wish hair loss was one I missed out on, I wasn’t that lucky. I had three rounds of chemo in total before being induced at 38 weeks, in order to time delivery when my blood counts would be at their highest. Mason was bon on April 26, 2019, healthy, strong, and perfect, and with way more hair than me.
After a two week break, I continued on with 5 more rounds of chemo, for a total of five months, and then 28 daily radiation treatments. I’m back on hormone therapy again, but my active treatment phase is finally over, and I’m starting to settle into regular life again. It’s hard not to feel a little resentment about missing out on so much during the first few months of Mason’s life, but we had amazing support from our family (who took turns visiting from the East Coast) and friends who stepped in to be there for the boys when we couldn’t.
It’s been a long, rough road, and it’s easy to get dragged down by all of the heaviness, but my two beautiful boys keep me focused on the positives, one day at a time. Even though my prognosis is good again, one recurrence increases the risk of another, so I’ve learned to be more cautious with my confidence, and I try and not worry too much anymore about what’s going to happen next year, when they’re teenagers, etc. They make me laugh every day, and give the best hugs, and our family feels complete. I couldn’t ask for more than that.