From So Much

It's strange how you can go half a lifetime, or a quarter of a lifetime, with so much normal, and then near-bouts lose sight of it altogether - suddenly, like it was never there. Like, you wake up one morning and your body is different and you never go back; the life you knew just starts to fall apart from there.

At about 11 weeks along I dream I lose the baby. It’s one of those vividly real dreams that scares you even after you’re rescued with wakefulness. The despair of my dream-world loss remained palpable well after that night, periodically coming to haunt my thoughts. Two weeks later to the day, in spite of a series of tests indicating a normal pregnancy, I start to bleed.                                              
It starts with a disconcerting spotting that becomes progressively heavier over a short period of time, sending me to the Emergency Room within the hour. 

Bobby, Little H, and I sit together in the crowded E.R. waiting room on a Thursday evening. My son is hungry for dinner and quite unaware as to why we have decided to spend a couple hours sitting in this boring room. Bobby and I are completely tortured by fear. He keeps looking over at me. I stare straight ahead at a TV screen of a fish tank. I’m watching the one-dimensional fish swim back and fourth and trying to coach myself into continuing to believe that the world still makes sense. Mostly though, I’m just feeling utterly broken inside. 

When we’re called back, we meet doctors and nurses, I give samples of body fluids, and we do a lot more waiting. Bobby eventually leaves to feed Little H dinner and put him to bed. I continue to wait. Eventually I’m taken back to the ultrasound room where we will determine if I am, in fact, miscarrying. They put the ultrasound wand inside me and immediately I look over to the screen to see the baby squirming around, it's heart beating rapidly, and it's tiny arms flailing. Amazing!

I thought that miraculous little life had already ended, but there my baby was, moving around and making it through yet another trial. 
13.5 weeks
It turned out that I wasn't dilating and I wasn't going into labor/miscarriage. There was a small gap between my placenta and uterine wall, which is abnormal. That pocket was bleeding, essentially emptying itself. But if the bleeding, which is already slowing by the time I’m released that night, stops and there is no dislodging, everything will be okay.

It’s just a scare that falls on already shell-shocked shoulders.

Our baby is okay.


Beam On

The weight of my tribulations lightens as I conceptualize the baby as a return of Good to my life.  I keep touching my abdomen in awe, sure I can feel the fluttering movements of life already. 
I try to refrain from thinking too much about names or a nursery. And we still haven’t told more than a handful of people. I am standing on the edge of cliff… so happy, so afraid.

At 2:50 PM every weekday for the remaining three weeks of my radiation treatment, I lay on a table with my left arm above my head and with seven lead blankets covering my abdomen. The discomfort of their weight gives me a heavy sense of protection. I curl my thumb inside my fist and ask God to wrap his hand around my baby each of the three times the radiation beam comes on.
After the techs have left the room and the red light on the wall flashes "beam on," I am whispering to God and to my baby. I think we're going to be okay.


Cars, Coins, and >10%

It’s 9:15 AM and Little H and I have already been to a park, grocery store, peed in a parking lot (him, not me), and are now at the mall 45 minutes before the stores open. Ambitious today, aren't we? Well, it's a feat in maneuvering Los Angeles traffic as I await my appointment with a geneticist later this morning.

I’m watching my little boy climb around on those electronic cars that rock back and forth; he pretends to drive the bright hunks of metal and waves at me through the window openings. I smile at his sweet play. How I love my little companion. And I also kind of love that I don't have to put quarters in the cars yet.

The last week has been filled with a pendulum of specialists’ opinions on my pregnancy. The geneticist, today, won’t offer much new to the picture. Mostly, she will go over the possible abnormalities the baby may have. Using estimates from my radiation office on actual amounts of exposure we're dealing with, she will work out an equation of risk. If that estimated risk of abnormality is above 10%, her professional advice will be to seek an abortion, as is the standard in the medical community.

I am appalled that babies with 90% odds at health are preemptively aborted.

I will look calmly into her face and nod, interested in the percentage she will come up with, but knowing Bobby and I will not heed that advice, should it come.

It does not come. In a few days I will receive a letter from her, in which she details her calculated risk to fall in the below 10% range for abnormalities.  We receive this, and all of the recent facts, as promising. Our raging storm is settling into a tranquil awe.
We still don’t share the news yet, and I try to maintain some semblance of a shield between wholehearted elation and expectation. While I long to hold onto the palpable meaning in this peripety, I also want to be able to survive if it is not the reversal of tragedy I hope it to be.

Ultimately, I understand I may lose the baby and that he or she is running a higher risk of deformities. I understand I may be compromising my own health, slightly, with a pregnancy and a delayed start to my adjuvant prescription regime. But as long as we have a growing child, we still have good news.
If this little one makes it, what a beautiful, beautiful miracle at the end of so much pain.


I Think It's Called Hope

My husband is angry. I think all the bad in our lives is starting to get to him. He’s somewhere between, Haven’t we been through enough? and How could we have let this happen?

I don’t share his anger - defeated resignation, perhaps. But even more than that, a welcome composure has nestled into my broken body; I seem to be navigating the circus around me with a calm, a calm not of myself.
I think it’s called hope.

Sometimes I question God’s movement in my life. Actually, if I’m honest, sometimes I question the very idea of God. But, sitting with my radiation oncologists, in this wild predicament, I feel a confidence (that is usual for me) that God has brought me to this place. By this place, I mean this extremely unlikely conception, this rare and astounding pregnancy, and this very radiation oncology office.

The office has paused my treatment and spent three days scrambling to learn facts and risks. Where other offices have institutionalized mandatory abortions for any pregnancy arising within treatment, my doctors are scouring medical journals to learn risks and ratios and then are going to let me decide how I will proceed.

They never present my ceasing treatment as an option, which is helpful to Bobby and me as we’re sorting through a myriad of ethical considerations and raw emotions. When we tell them (adamantly), yes, we want to continue with this pregnancy, they stand behind me in every perfect way they can. They bring in experts to calculate possible scatter radiation with my exact measurements; they redo my radiation blueprint, bringing the beams into a tighter area; they give me as much information as they can garner, (there’s not a lot of applicable statistics out there, as this is extremely rare); and, they bring in every lead blanket in the area to pile across my abdomen in an attempt to reduce scatter exposure to the fetus. They find me a geneticist, an OB-GYN, and a Neonatologist.

They tell me they believe the chances may actually be good the baby will make it through without harm. Perhaps both of us can survive.
Perhaps there will be a rainbow at the end of my storm.

Perhaps God is still moving amidst my life.


Against All Odds: Two Blue Lines

There are two pregnancy tests in the very back of my bathroom cabinet. They are from an era long gone, a time before I had 2 diseases and had not yet lost all expectation for a normal progression of life.
On February 16, 2011, I was thinking about throwing them away.

Bobby and I had been told that having another child would be complicated and improbable for us. Months of chemotherapy was so likely to damage my eggs that I was advised even fertility specialists may not be able to help us conceive again. Not to mention, it took us nearly a year of trying to get pregnant with our son; months of disappointing pregnancy tests with only one blue line taught me that I don’t conceive easily in the healthiest of circumstances.
So, I had resigned myself to having an oophorectomy (for future cancer prevention) within the next couple of months, the surgery that would permanently remove my ovaries - and with them of course, any possibility of a future pregnancy. In the meantime, as recommended, we had been using contraceptives, (a natural family planning/barrier combination) - on the rare occasions it was an issue during this time of extreme tumult.

On top of all of that, I am only 2 months out from taking Lupron, the drug that shut down my hormone production completely; I’ve had only 1 menstrual cycle since ceasing that medical menopause.  
But it’s been longer than a month since that 1 cycle, and I’m just going to toss them out anyway…

I open the box. I am a little bit curious about this inkling I’m feeling. Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic. For whatever reason, I take the test.
After months of fixation and then a painful release of hope for a second pregnancy, I am a bald, skinny, scarred, and unhopeful woman in the middle of radiation treatment – who watches two blue lines show up on the pregnancy test.

Cheap tests; they must be expired or something. I take the other one. Again, those two blue lines.

A thick fog of confusion is rolling in, clouding my consciousness. I pick up the phone and call the Oncological OB-GYN. He returns my call immediately. Are you giving me a medication that would make a pregnancy test come out positive? I ask, believing this is the explanation. Is pregnancy even possible? 
I hear his words through the haze, “possible….get a blood test…..radiation exposure…miscarriage…abortion…”

I’m staring out the window of my dining room. The sun is shining. The eucalyptus leaves are blowing in the coastal breeze. And the world is spinning without me. I have left. I don’t recognize a thing in this life anymore.    

I call my husband at work. Somewhere amidst a sob I say the words, “I am pregnant… but can’t have the baby.”

I walk down the street to see a primary care physician for blood and urine pregnancy tests. The group is called “Providence Medical;” their name is emblazoned in huge letters across the exterior of the building. As I am questioning the very idea of God’s guidance and protection, I step through their doors.

“Congratulations,” they tell me.

From Providence Medical Group, a deliriously confused young woman makes her way across the street to her radiation oncology office to tell them she’s pregnant. 



Radiating Me

There are 3 primary, approved cancer treatments in the United States: chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. Radiation comes at the end of treatment as a targeted attempt to kill any cancer cells that may still exist after surgery. A precisely-placed, high-energy beam is used consecutively, usually over a 5 to 6 week period, to damage cancer cells. It’s a “mopping up” process for any remaining malignent cells. 

Generally, if you have a breast cancer tumor that is 5 centimeters or larger, radiation therapy is recommended. Since my post-surgical pathology revealed my tumor to be 5.5 centimeters (quite large), here I am - about to radiate the left side of my chest 5 days a week for the next 5 weeks.

By the end of my first week, I am already very comfortable with my Radiation Oncology office.

I arrive at exactly the same time every afternoon for my standing appointment. I know the lady who goes in before me, the older woman who adorns her bright sweatsuits with marvelous high heels and big earrings. She touches my shoulder when she says hello. I know the lady who goes in after me. She is always early, sometimes arriving before me; she has shoulder-length blonde hair but likes to compliment how well I wear my “adorable” brown re-growth. I covet her ponytail every time she mentions my sprouts. 

I read the same issue of Consumer Digest for a month, one page at a time during the short interims in the waiting room. I always glance at the offering of cookies or candies by the coffee machines as I walk past, but don't take any. (I haven't figured out if they're for patients or employees.) I know the receptionist’s name and favorite flower, how the nurse likes to spend her lunch break walking, how often my techs wash their dogs and dye their hair... I know this place and these people fast, as will happen with the familiarity of frequency.

Strangely, it has a good feel to it though.

Maybe I like it here because it’s so much preferable to the Oncologist’s office, which I loathe with a passion. Maybe it’s because this office is fabulously close to my house and has free parking, very unlike my other doctors on both counts. Maybe it’s because this treatment won't make my hair fall out or my stomach queasy, and it doesn't require being cut open. Maybe it's because the doctor is warm, genuine and fantastically thorough.
For a place that's radioactively burning in the inside of my chest wall, there's a lot to like about it.


Eye of the Storm

Slowly, I begin to emerge from my cocoon of sadness, taking small steps back toward cheer and thankfulness.

The coming months – and years – ahead will be an ever evolving work at graceful acceptance of my broken, fallible body. Two diseases, their respective symptoms, treatments and side effects have been - and will continue to be - ravaging and pervasive.   
But right now, the spiral I’ve been descending down for the last year feels like it may begin to flatten out soon… like the wild ride is beginning to slow…

Except it’s not. I don’t know it yet, but things are about to drop off into absolute chaos and mayhem again…