Michelle Lang-Schock lovingly cradled her 3-week-old daughter inside the cancer center at Summa Barberton Hospital.
During her previous visits to the infusion suite, she endured six rounds of chemotherapy treatments while pregnant with her baby girl.
“Here’s the baby,” she announced proudly to oncology nurse practitioner Gail Bujorian. “This is what we all fought for.”
Her fight for her baby’s life was successful, but Michelle still didn’t know what might lie ahead in her own battle against breast cancer.
During her pregnancy, doctors assured her she could undergo treatments with minimal risk to the baby growing inside her.
But while she was pregnant, she couldn’t get the tests needed to confirm cancer cells weren’t growing somewhere else in her body.
Her oncologist was confident her cancer had been discovered and treated early, before it had a chance to metastasize.
Still, Michelle couldn’t help but wonder: What if?
What if the cancer spread?
What if I have to face more rounds of dreaded chemotherapy?
What if the treatments didn’t work?
Women in her breast cancer support group warned her those questions never completely go away.
With every scan and every follow-up check, they told her, you will wonder if cancer has crept back into your life.
For Michelle and her husband, Harry, their worries began just several months after their wedding last year, when she found a lump in her right breast that turned out to be noncancerous.
During a follow-up visit with a breast specialist at Barberton Hospital at the urging of her Pink Ribbon case manager, the doctor discovered a small, barely detectable dimpling in the other breast that was cancerous.
The day before the appointment, a home pregnancy test had revealed the couple were expecting a surprise addition to their blended family, which already included five children ages 7 to 21 from previous relationships.
The Wadsworth couple agreed to fight her cancer aggressively while preserving the life of their unborn child.
Surgery and chemotherapy
During her pregnancy, Michelle had a mastectomy to remove her left breast, followed by chemotherapy.
Routine visits to her pediatrician have confirmed the baby named Charli is growing and thriving, unfazed by the anti-cancer drugs that circulated throughout Michelle’s body during the pregnancy.
During the first few weeks after Charli’s birth in May, the couple focused on spending time together with their expanded family, pushing thoughts of cancer aside.
Harry left his job as a long-distance truck driver and started a new position driving a concrete mixer for a local firm. The job allows him to be home every night and on weekends, rather than on the road for days at a time.
Michelle’s daughter, Bella, 7, constantly doted on her new baby sister. And every day, Michelle’s youngest son, Max, 9, expressed gratitude for the newest family member.
“Thank you so much for having Charli,” Max told his mom. “I love her so much.”
The disabling fatigue Michelle felt from cancer treatments and pregnancy were gone, replaced with only the typical tiredness that comes from caring for a newborn around the clock.
For the first time in more than a year, she felt like her old self again.
“I feel normal,” she thought. “I feel so good.”
But Michelle knew her break from cancer couldn’t last forever.
During an appointment with her oncologist in early June, the doctor told her it was time to start taking a daily medication to reduce the risk of cancer coming back.
The pill became a daily reminder of a breast cancer diagnosis she wanted to forget. The medicine gave her hot flashes — a common side effect for the drug that blocks estrogen from fueling breast cancer cells to grow.
She took another medicine to help with the hot flashes, but it immediately drained all her energy.
The following week, Michelle underwent the CT and PET (positron emission tomography) scans that had been delayed because of her pregnancy.
Twelve days after her tests, her oncologist’s office called to share the three words Michelle had been waiting to hear: “Everything is fine.”
Despite her relief, Michelle didn’t celebrate.
“I didn’t feel cancer-free,” she said.
She knew she still had five weeks of radiation therapy ahead of her to prevent a recurrence.
And early next year, she’ll have another surgery to remove her other breast and ovaries to help prevent another cancer diagnosis. She’ll also have her breasts reconstructed.
For five weeks starting in early July, Michelle went to Summa Barberton Hospital’s Parkview Center every Monday through Friday to have beams of radiation aimed precisely at the areas near her collarbone on the front and back and under her left armpit where cancer cells were found in her lymph nodes.
Though no cancer was found on her recent scans, Michelle opted to undergo radiation therapy to increase her odds of remaining cancer-free.
Tears streamed down her face as she lay on the bed in the radiation therapy room for pre-treatment tests, her arms stretched awkwardly above her head to expose her naked chest.
She relived her previous struggles with cancer and dreaded what was yet to come.
“I can’t believe I’m lying here because of cancer,” she thought.
The radiation oncology nurse assured her she could still hold Charli or play with her children after each session.
“The only time you are radioactive,” she said, “is when you are in the room by yourself with the beam on.”
Friends offered to watch Charli, Max and Bella so she could go to her appointments at 10:30 each weekday morning for the treatments.
The radiation treatments were brief — just two beams lasting 22 seconds each. (During one appointment, she counted.)
Within a couple of weeks, she felt increasingly tired from the radiation. Her skin became intensely itchy. The areas getting radiation turned red and felt burnt from the inside out.
Joy and relief
She left the last treatment session feeling happy and relieved.
Her cancer battle might not be over, but at least the treatments are finally behind her.
There are still days when Michelle can’t believe she’s a cancer patient. Days when she wishes cancer never cursed her life.
She cried as she made the slow trek around the track at Wadsworth High School in July during the community’s Relay for Life event to support the American Cancer Society.
She walked in the first lap dedicated to cancer survivors. Harry joined her, pushing their little survivor, Charli, in her stroller as a bagpipe played Amazing Grace.
“I can’t believe it’s my first Relay for Life and I’m here because of me, for having cancer,” she said. “I just never thought it would be for me.”
Then she reminds herself: The curse of cancer came with the blessing of a new life.
“I don’t want to be unappreciative of having cancer,” she said, “because I’m so appreciative for having Charli.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.