Labor Pains: Four Weeks After A Breast Cancer Diagnosis, My Baby Entered The World

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May 2009: I was six weeks from my due date for my second child. My partner, our almost-two-year-old daughter and I were enjoying our last few weeks of being a family of three, and I was getting psyched for a summer with another maternity leave.

Then my partner found a lump in her breast. Standing naked in front of the mirror one morning, she felt something hard and invited me to feel it, too, and I did. I had always wondered what a real breast lump might feel like – not lumpy breast tissue, but hard, almost like a little pebble, and bigger than you might think – like a raspberry, maybe. It didn’t feel normal to either of us, and I encouraged her to see our ob-gyn, whom I was seeing almost weekly at this stage of my pregnancy. We were both quiet on the matter for the rest of that night, and I think we both knew what might be coming.

She got in to see Dr. Flagg the next morning, and, like most doctors when you say you felt a lump, Dr. Flagg said, “Oh, it’s probably nothing.” Then she felt it. She asked my partner to get dressed and not return to work in midtown, but to go have a coffee at Balthazar around the corner, while the doctor tried to get her an appointment at NYU Clinical Cancer Center to get the lump biopsied. The waiting took a couple of hours. She finally got an appointment around 1 p.m. I was to meet her there.

I waddled out of my desk, still battling the sciatica that had put me into physical therapy in my second trimester, and out to hail a cab from Times Square to the East Side. I couldn’t find one, so started walking. Quickly. My partner texted me, “Almost here?” I was almost there, just five or so blocks away, I wrote back. “Hurry,” she replied. “It’s breast cancer.”

Another lump generated instantly – in my throat. This can’t be for real, I thought, and right then and there suppressed the fear, anxiety, rage, hopelessness and fatigue that would plague me for several years to come.

When I got to NYU, my partner had been quickly biopsied and given the results immediately by the same technician. Where is the nice room with relaxing music, and someone with a nice bedside manner, to deliver your diagnosis, she wondered? We met with a breast surgeon, who told us that her tumor was relatively large, but that they expected it to respond well to aggressive treatment: chemotherapy, radiation and at least one surgery, the first leg of which would start within a few weeks.

My partner started chemo about three weeks later: a four-hour infusion of Adriamycin, whose side effects were rough: Nausea, extreme fatigue, great disengagement with life. The last of these elements is relative, of course, because how can one measure your engagement level with life? My partner’s was pretty high before cancer. That first treatment crushed it. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t get off the couch. When she did eat, it would be very small portions and then she’d sleep for most of the day (and night, thankfully). She didn’t have the strength to talk much to me or our toddler daughter during the first five days after the infusion.

On the sixth morning after that chemo treatment, my partner woke up and said, “Wow, Liz, I actually feel like I’m back.” It would be another week before her next treatment (they were scheduled for twice a month for four months), and she said, “This would be a really great week for the baby to come.” And I thought, I think he – the unborn baby – knows that on some level. Or maybe I just knew deep down I needed to have that baby that week; I was two weeks from my due date then.

That night, I felt a pressure bearing down on my uterus so that it felt it might burst onto the warm late-June sidewalk. I called my partner and said, “I hope you meant what you said this morning, because this is going to happen in the next 24 hours.” That night, I began having contractions and leaking amniotic fluid. After a few hours, I called our obstetrics practice, and Dr. Flagg, who was on duty, called me back. It felt serendipitous that the same doctor who had essentially diagnosed my partner’s tumor would also be helping bring our child into the world.

We arrived at the hospital around 4 in the morning and I asked for an epidural right away. About four hours later – and about five days before my partner would start her next round of chemo – Eli joined our family. I labored to four Blondie songs before we – he and I, together – squeezed him out to “Sunday Girl.” Even before he gulped his first breaths of air, I believe, he had manned up to accomplish his first job in our family: Arriving two weeks early so that his (other) mama would be healthy enough to receive him into her own arms.

(Photo: George Doyle)