A Reason to Live
When I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, my baby boy inspired me to pull myself together.
For most women, a home pregnancy test can offer only one of two outcomes. In my case, there ought to have been a third option on the tiny result screen: cancer. Gestational cancer to be exact - a disease brought on not by smoking Marlboro Reds or living near power lines, but by good old-fashioned procreation. I remember the moment my doctor broke the news. I was wrapping my 6-month-old son. Aiden, in a post-bath swaddle when the M.D. phoned to tell me that I had choriocarcinoma. He explained that it was a rare but highly treatable tumor that had developed at the site where my uterus and placenta connected. I understood what he was saying, but somehow, staring down at my sweet, spiky-haired little doughboy, it seemed unthinkable: Giving birth to Aiden had caused me to get cancer.
Up until that call, things in my life had become pretty routine - at least as routine as they could be with a baby in the house. After a short leave. I'd returned to work as a freelance fashion copywriter. I breastfed in the morning and throughout the night, and I pumped and stored the milk in the office refrigerator during the day. I had a part-time nanny and parents nearby who helped whenever possible. Sure, I wasn't getting much sleep, downtime, freedom, sex, or, dare I say, even joy out of life. But, I figured, who was at this stage in the new-mommy game? In fact, the only thing that seemed to make my experience unique was a pesky bleeding problem.
Typically, the lochia (the tissue and blood that line the uterus during pregnancy) is shed within four to six weeks after birth. I bled for more than five months, and yet one checkup after another revealed nothing abnormal, until one suspicious scan convinced my doctor that a leftover bit of placenta might be causing the hemorrhage. He performed a DC (dilation and curettage) procedure to remove the tissue and had it analyzed by a pathology lab- The bleeding had finally stopped when he called with the results. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately one in every 40,000 pregnancies results in choriocarcinoma, and about 25 percent was the look I'd settled for.
Now, I could add ghostly, frail, and hairless to that physical description. Call it vanity, call it misplaced anxiety, but I found the prospect of going bald far more terrifying than that of being eaten alive by a rapidly growing tumor. As the hair began to come out in clumps, I'd stare at myself in the mirror, noting all the peculiarities of my bare scalp. To administer the chemo, doctors had implanted a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) into the crook of my arm. It looked like a plastic worm held in place with a giant piece of medical tape. I wasn't fitting into my pre-pregnancy clothes, and now the PICC made dressing even more of a misery. How would I make it through this nightmare? How could I handle a situation that had spun so profoundly out of my control?
The short answer: I had no other choice. All the self-pity in the world wouldn't make me healthy again. Although tempting, buying a one-way ticket to Bora Bora and spending my remaining days alone on a beach wasn't an option either. My son needed his mommy back, with her mind and body intact. I had to fight this cancer and make the best of what was happening to me. I started by buying the best-guality wig I could afford, which I had cut into a long, layered shag. As natural as it looked, I still wanted to keep the focus off my hairline, so I accessorized with hats, sparkly necklaces, hoop earrings, and leather cuff bracelets.
As a new mom, I normally wouldn't have bought myself clothes while I was still in between sizes, but I needed to hide the PICC, so I hunted for chic tunics and stylish long-sleeved tops. I actually got so many compliments on my bold fashion choices that the new hairstyle barely registered with anyone. Because my chemo regime made me sensitive to sunlight, I was paler than usual, so I made sure to apply makeup and bronzer every day. Little by little, the too-sleep-deprived-to-care version of me that people had gotten used to seeing was being replaced by someone who had to pull herself together - or risk falling apart entirely.
As much as I missed Aiden, my husband helped me put the situation into perspective. We now had round-the-clock babysitting coverage, so why not get some long-overdue couple time and go out to dinner, take long walks, or even spend the weekend away? He encouraged me to stop lamenting my misfortune and instead be grateful for what I did have: a good prognosis that other cancer patients could only wish for, help from loving parents, and an insanely adorable son who made it all worthwhile. No longer colicky, and showing the first signs of his somewhat mischievous yet endearing personality, Aiden was now fun to be around. From his heart-melting smile to the way he curiously examined his own tiny starfish hands, he was the picture of blissful babydom, and I found it inspiring.
With my son and the rest of my family as motivation, I pulled through. I not only survived theworst thing that had ever happened to me, I came away from the ordeal with a healthier outlook on life than I ever thought possible. Now more than a year into remission, I fit back into my pre-baby clothes and my real hair is long enough to pull back into a short ponytail. My husband and I have reconnected as a couple through date nights and fun outings, and by focusing on my physical appearance I restored my waning self-esteem. I allowed myself to accept - not resent - the help that I needed, and I was able to bring Aiden seamlessly back into our home. Knowing that this pregnancy nearly cost me my life, would I do it all over again? I think the real question is, what wouldn't I have gone through, what price wouldn't I have paid to have what I now consider to be the greatest fortune of all - my precious little Aiden.