AFE Survivor Angela
There’s little other way to present our story than with a timeline of sorts – and any one of the events in the timeline are completely overwhelming. First, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in May 2012, who my husband and I, named Tyler. I never imagined that I’d be expecting a second child just 8 months later, but it was that surprising and, at first, extremely overwhelming gift that helped save my life, yet momentarily threatened to take it away.
Each time I visit a new doctor and am asked for my medical history, there comes this moment of stunned silence. And, no matter how many times I tell the tale, I can’t stop myself from thinking and verbalizing it: It sounds like a work of fiction, doesn’t it? Did all of this actually happen? Did it happen to me? Sometimes, I really can’t believe it myself, and I teeter totter between feeling as though 3 years ago was yesterday and also a lifetime ago. Perhaps I’ve not truly processed it all. It seemed like everything happened so fast.
In the fall of 2012, I had noticed a lump on my right breast. It was large enough to see, it was large enough to feel, and it was large enough to cause pain. Yet, I quickly dismissed it. After all, I was breast feeding my 8-month-old son. I assumed it to be a blocked duct. I feared perhaps, I had massaged it too aggressively while frustrated that I wasn’t producing enough milk. Plus, at the age of 34, with no pervading family history and being in relatively good health, I never considered cancer as a possibility. Thus, three months passed without any outwardly ill effects or fear over the lump.
In late January, as I leaned over to pick something up, I felt the faintest twinge in my abdomen and remembered very early on in my first pregnancy having felt the same stirring. To our surprise, we were expecting again!
Every night, I would cry and cry while rocking Tyler … then I would eventually erupt in laughter. I felt so sad and guilty that Tyler would have to share his parents so soon with a brother or sister, and I felt overtired and overwhelmed at the time. I couldn’t imagine anything in the world being as overwhelming as having two infants in the house in the span of 15 months. Boy was I ever in for a wild ride. Everything that came next made those feelings seem pretty tame.
During the first appointment with our OB to confirm the pregnancy, I casually mentioned to my doctor that I’d felt a lump on my breast. The OB ordered an ultrasound for the following week, which became at that visit, a biopsy.
I remember how cold the room was as I was draped in the gown and I stared at the popcorn ceiling in disbelief. I regretted coming to the appointment alone, especially when the techs said that they saw something but weren’t sure what it was. I remember that it looked like a tiny dragon.
And it was. An ugly, fire-breathing, loathsome dragon.
My diagnosis came on March 14, 2013, and the weeks and months that immediately followed were consumed with appointments at Mayo Clinic to confirm the size and stage of cancer – Stage IIB, Triple Negative, BRCA1+ gene mutation (the “Angelina Jolie” gene as it’s become known in mainstream media).
All anyone ever talked about or wanted to deal with was my cancer. I felt robbed of the joy that’s supposed to be part and parcel of carrying a new life inside of you. The joy was often replaced with fear – fear that the treatment I was receiving could harm the baby. Fear that the treatment might somehow not be enough – that I would leave two boys behind. But, even more often, I felt a different feeling take hold. I often felt inside as though this was happening to someone else. And honestly, that probably prevented a huge breakdown.
In April, at 14 weeks along, I began chemotherapy. After completing the cycle in June, a lumpectomy was performed in July. Even as early as then, I knew that eventually I’d be looking at a bilateral mastectomy and risk-reducing removal of her ovaries and Fallopian tubes. If anything was going to kill me, I said, “it wasn’t going to be breast cancer or ovarian cancer”.
It was at this time that I began to appreciate the timing of it all. If I’d not been pregnant while diagnosed, I would have moved quickly down the path of aggressive chemo and never been able to complete our family. If I’d not gotten pregnant with our second, I perhaps would have neglected the lump further and succumbed to cancer. This child was a miracle in every way – even before he was born.
Every parent is familiar with the excitement and anxiety that peaks before the birth of a child, but in the last couple weeks before Nicholas’s birth, I started to get anxious, feeling as though the baby’s movement was decreasing.
Two weeks before Nick’s birth, I started telling my high risk OB that I was worried the baby was running out of room. And I wasn’t joking or saying so out of discomfort. I was serious. Yet no one responded as though it was a valid concern. The tests indicated that my blood pressure was fine, and aside from some protein in my urine, which again didn’t raise red flags, it was business as usual as far as they were concerned.
A week before his birth, I had a strange thing happen … maybe it was an omen, if you believe in that sort of thing. It certainly gave me pause … I was driving my usual route in the morning and had to come to a complete stop because a husky sauntered into the road and sat stock still in my lane for what seemed like ages. I felt like we were making eye contact … he was so close to the car. And I didn’t know what it meant, but it has stayed with me since. Later, I looked up the symbolism for a husky, and get a load of this: “You understand fully that it is the journey that is important and that life has a way of showing you that you can overcome hardship if you use your survival instincts and intuition.”
Days before Nick’s birth, I started bleeding and was admitted but released 12 hours later without restrictions. An induction was scheduled a couple days after that. You could question whether sending me home may have done harm, but later as I reflected on it, the right team wasn’t yet in place.
On September 11, I was induced and as the AFE occurred, my anesthesiologist ordered a cutting edge test on my blood. The results would deliver the right sequence of blood products needed. And the OB on call at the time was the only OB there who’d ever witnessed an AFE in her 30-year career.
That’s fate … without a doubt. And an extraordinary amount of luck. I woke up to so many emotions. Anxiety, joy, gratitude, disbelief, guilt, and awe. And I saw the world in a different light, I really did. And I don’t mean that all was positive and new. At times, I’ve been an utter hot mess and I had challenges bonding with Nicholas, for which I have tremendous guilt. But he and I, and my family, went through so much in such a short amount of time, before, during and after the AFE. I resumed treatment just 8 weeks after the AFE, while still on dialysis, then had additional surgeries and radiation in 2014, and am now free of disease three years out from my diagnosis. I think the fact that we’re here and we’re healthy is all we can ask for. It’s all anyone can ask for, and I know it’s not the outcome all of us are afforded. I don’t know why we were spared, but we are for darn sure not going to squander it, and we are never going to stop working to make sure other families aren’t ripped apart by it.
My advice to anyone in my shoes, or even those who aren’t: NEVER ignore changes to your body – of any kind – and don’t downplay your emotions and intuition. Seriously, how many times among those who’ve experienced an AFE, do we hear that they felt something was wrong but didn’t speak up?
And, for those who are or who may find themselves fighting cancer, you have no idea just how strong you are. I know you don’t feel it, but everyone around you does. They look at you and the odds you’ve been able to beat, and they think to themselves … WOW! The battles they face in their lives suddenly seem not as impossible to overcome. Survivors are here to inspire others, those who we’ve lost continue to inspire others – we keep them close at heart always, whether the battle was of cancer, AFE, or both. I hope for everyone’s sake that I remain the only known person on the planet to deal with cancer and AFE simultaneously. As isolating as that is, I don’t want anyone else to join that club. I am that lone husky in the road simply here to warn you and remind you to stay mindful.” -Angie