I laid on our carpeted playroom floor, unable to take a deep breath, in need of a longer nap than Rip van Winkle, and staring at the little miracle that laid cuddled up next to me in a portable baby bed.
I didn’t want to take my eyes off her, savoring every little movement of her hands and flutter of her eyelids. My sweet baby girl, Hope, slept soundly, completely oblivious to the emotional and physical pain that was surging through me just a few inches away.
“It’s just anxiety,” I told myself. “It’s the hormones…it’s typical healing after giving birth.”
But I knew that more than likely none of that was true. After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo and while I certainly experienced the usual highs and lows of new motherhood with the birth of my first daughter several years before, I had not experienced anything like this.
The fear of what it all meant was overwhelming.
A few minutes later as I continued to lay there not wanting to move from both exhaustion and physical discomfort, my husband, Matt, came into the room, cell phone in hand. I could see the mix of concern and love in his eyes as he handed me the phone and said, “It’s the OB.”
“Hello?” I said, not moving from the floor.
“Mandy?” I heard the familiar and kind voice of the call line nurse on the other end. “Honey, what’s going on?”
I giggled a little (my typical defense mechanism when it comes to uncomfortable situations) and said, “Well, I’m really not sure.”
She asked me a few questions about the various physical symptoms I was experiencing and I responded honestly, but downplayed it all with, “I think maybe I’m just really anxious about everything.”
There was a pause on her end and I felt her shift into practitioner mode. Her jovial nature wasn’t as apparent anymore and she was all business as she said, “In light of the symptoms you’re describing, we recommend that you get checked out. We’re sending you to the emergency room.”
Feeling terrified, I glanced at my tiny, sleeping daughter next to me. Taking every ounce of mental strength I had left, I committed the beautiful image to my memory.
Matt and I made arrangements for my dad to take me to the ER so that Matt could take our four-day-old baby to her first pediatrician appointment…alone. The thought was agonizing.
As my dad arrived to chauffeur me to my worst nightmare, I gazed into the living room at my firstborn, Lucy, who was thankfully oblivious to what was happening as she listened to music and danced around excitedly. I tried to sound strong even though the endless river of tears wouldn’t stop. “Bye, Lucy!” I called into her.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Mama just has to go to the doctor,” I said, trying to act confident and not make her worry. “I’ll be back soon!” She was used to mama going to the doctor at this point.
I had a deep, sinking feeling that this would not be a quick trip.
On the drive to the ER, my dad remained upbeat but tried to gather information about what was happening. I hadn’t given him much detail when I called for a ride. “So what’s going on?” he asked.
“They really aren’t sure what’s going on,” I said. “It could be some kind of post-birth complication…or it could be the cancer.”
Just five months earlier, at 17 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with stage three inflammatory breast cancer – an aggressive kind. While many women during their second trimester of pregnancy are planning a nursery theme and googling, “Is it safe to eat avocados during pregnancy?” I was having MRIs, port placement surgery, 13 rounds of chemotherapy (yes, while pregnant), and attending countless oncology and OBGYN appointments.
In addition, just six days after I received my breast cancer diagnosis, our family also received an autism diagnosis for Lucy, my living room dancing queen. Her diagnosis was almost immediately followed by weekly occupational and speech therapy appointments.
My full-time job for the past five months had been surviving as a mom to a special needs child, as a pregnant woman and as a cancer patient. This ride to the ER was a manifestation of my greatest fear: I may not be surviving all that well.
“I don’t want to die, dad,” I sobbed as he drove along the highway and as my husband, somewhere far away in the rearview mirror, picked up the pieces of my absence and cared for both of our daughters.
After arriving to the ER, the on-staff doctor announced that I would be getting a CT scan to check for a potential blood clot in my lungs. I panicked and looked at my dad like a deer looking into headlights.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, though I could tell he was praying.
This would be the first CT scan I received since starting chemo as a pregnant woman. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was unable to do the full gamut of scans as many were not safe for the baby. So the plan had always been: chemo, birth, mastectomy, scans. Everything had been timed and coordinated so meticulously with my treatment over the past few months that I had been clinging to that timeline desperately in an effort to feel like there was some sense of order to this chaos we were living. Now things were all mixed up as I faced one of those scans unexpectedly.
This scan could reveal that the chemo hadn’t been successful, or worse, that the cancer had spread. I hadn’t prepared myself to face that reality, especially not 48 hours after giving birth to our miracle child. This hadn’t been part of my timeline and I felt defeated.
Laying on the CT scanner table, all I could think about was how lonely it was. Every pregnancy safe cancer test I had done over the past several months, such as MRIs, Hope had been snug as a bug in my belly. During stressful moments, I would concentrate on the feeling of her moving around and it would give me a sense of calm and hope for the future. I felt I had a job to do and I committed to it entirely: protect the baby during cancer treatment.
Now, I felt so empty and unimportant. My only job at this point was to present my exhausted, overworked and void body as though it was a sacrifice to the almighty emergency room CT scanner. My identity and role had changed in 48 hours from a warrior mama to a sick patient whose body was betraying her after performing the ultimate showstopper performance of delivering a safe and healthy baby amidst a cancer diagnosis.
After the scan, I returned to the little curtained space in the ER where my dad continued sitting. Suddenly feeling cold, I wrapped my arms around myself, looked at him and said, “I’m scared, dad.” His body remained still and calm though his eyes made it obvious that he was scared too. He kept his voice steady as he replied, “I know, honey.” We both sat with quiet between us for a few minutes. My dad then reverted to his typical goofy self and broke the silence with, “I was listening to some of the people come in while you were in your scan…some of these people have crazy stories!”
“We ARE the crazy story people, dad,” I said. We both laughed.
After some time, a nurse came in to go over the test results. I held my breath as she began clicking and typing on her computer. “No blood clots!” she said, and began busying herself reviewing my vitals on a sheet of paper.
No mention of cancer.
“Wait,” I said to her. “That’s it? Nothing else popped up?” I felt a little flame re-ignite in the area of my heart that held hope.
The nurse went back to the computer, re-opened the test results and read the words out loud to me and my dad. The CT scan was clear. No blood clots…but most importantly, no cancer.
Tears welled in my eyes as my greatest fear was put delicately back into a shoe box in my brain, waiting to be opened up another time. Even though we still needed to determine what exactly was happening that landed me in the ER (low heartbeat, high blood pressure, shallow breathing, pain, swelling, and diarrhea), signs were pointing to the fact that it wasn’t cancer related. While the situation was still unknown and daunting– it didn’t feel quite as impossible to face as it had originally.
The on-call OBGYN surmised that my body was going through shock from the trauma of pregnancy, chemo and giving birth and was reacting with an atypical version of postpartum preeclampsia. Add it to my resume.
The next 24 hours involved me being admitted to the hospital and hooked up to a magnesium drip as doctors came in to marvel at the medical mystery that was my body. The magnesium treatment flooded my brain with what I would call a “bad trip.” In-between fitful sleeping sessions where I was seeing Zoe from “Sesame Street” swinging in slow motion on a tree swing, I was feeling the worst depression of my life and telling Matt I believed I was dying. Having taken up residence in my hospital room, Matt’s day was filled with constantly reassuring me that I would feel better once the treatment was done while also constantly taking care of five day old Hope’s every need including diaper changes to feedings. I honestly don’t know how he did it.
Two days later I was stable and was released from the hospital. 18 days after arriving home from my postpartum preeclampsia hospital stay, I had a single mastectomy to remove my cancerous breast and would be given the incredible news that I was cancer free. The mastectomy was then followed by 30 days of radiation. Despite it all, I was alive.
My entire experience of cancer treatment as a pregnant woman has given me the incredible gift of perspective when it comes to motherhood. So many of us moms are struggling to be super woman and do it all amidst the constant pressure for parenthood perfection. Just as I had clung to that cancer treatment timeline like I was Moses with the Ark of the Covenant, I had also clung to the idea that if I did everything “right” – how we raised our kids, how we decorated the house, how we socialized - that life would be safe and we could avoid bad things.
The problem, however, is that sometimes shit just happens no matter how much we plan and perfect. We can’t predict or avoid a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy any more than we can predict the ups and downs of parenthood.
Sticking to the timeline I had committed myself to when it came to my cancer treatment didn’t change the fact that I ended up in the ER and that my body needed a break. The scary and unplanned situation still happened and you know what? I lived to tell the tale.
Was it hard? Yes.
But did the unpredictability of the chaos destroy me? Hell no.
I had felt defeated upon arriving to the ER and convinced myself that my end of days was near but I made it through to the other side. I survived even though we weren’t following the original, perfectly created schedule of my cancer during pregnancy journey. I had been wrong. There wasn’t a perfect or right way to handle cancer during pregnancy just as there isn’t a perfect or right way to be a parent.
It's okay to be wrong.
If there’s anything this entire experience has taught me it’s that the secret to surviving the trenches of parenthood is to lean in to the uncertainty, chaos and unpredictability. Surrender yourself to the fact that you’re not perfect, that your kids don’t need a perfect parent and that showing your children how you can thrive even when times are hard and difficult is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Perfection is only an imaginary, impossible standard we’ve created for ourselves. It is not a real measurement for things working out in our favor in parenthood or life in general.
You can succeed even when “the plan” falls apart.
Never, ever give up.
This story was written by Mandy Geyman, for our Hello Parents series. Our mission is to create a community of extreme inclusivity. Appreciating what makes us different and what we all have in common. No judgment. Just a village of support.