Michelle Lang-Schock cringed as her mother slowly eased electric clippers through her shoulder-length hair.
Locks of red tumbled to the kitchen floor of her Wadsworth home as her closest friends and family members gathered around her for support.
Pregnant and battling breast cancer, Michelle has little control over the changes happening to her body. So rather than wait for the chemotherapy drugs to make her bald, Michelle threw a shaving party in December to lose her hair on her own terms a couple weeks after her first cancer treatment.
Her mom, Lin Lang Tyler, a barber from Urbana, trimmed her hair to the scalp before her brother, Adam Lang, used his expertise from shaving his own head to make sure hers was smooth and itch-free.
“You don’t need hair to be pretty,” her mom told her.
Michelle averted her eyes from a mirror that her friend Connie Lawless was holding.
“Is this really happening?” she asked. “I don’t want to look.”
“Now you look like an old man,” Lawless joked.
“Can I do a comb-over?” Michelle replied with a laugh, dramatically flipping a few remaining strands on top of her hairless scalp.
But in the solitude of darkness later that night, her laughter faded to tears.
She could hide her missing breast under clothes with a fake one, but the bald head was impossible for her to ignore.
“This is HARD, shocking and just plain SUCKS!!” she shared in a Facebook post the next morning. “Many tears, my friends, many tears. :( I am soooo over this and wish it was a year from now so I can be whole again. See I am not as strong as you all think.”
With a mixture of laughter and tears, Michelle, 41, and her husband of nine months, Harry Schock, 53, are fighting to save her life while anticipating the birth of their first child together in May.
Michelle, or “Missey” as many of her friends and family members call her, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, shortly after discovering she was pregnant. Had the cancer not been detected, it likely would have continued to grow silently and spread, fueled by the hormones of her pregnancy.
Michelle’s cancer journey started when she found a lump in her right breast a few months after she and Harry got married.
An ultrasound confirmed the lump in her right breast was a harmless, fatty tumor. But a follow-up appointment with a breast specialist revealed a barely visible dimpling in the other breast that turned out to be cancer.
Michelle and Harry quickly agreed to fight to beat the cancer while preserving the life of their unborn child.
About a month after having her left breast removed, Michelle had her first chemo treatment at Parkview Center, Summa Barberton Hospital’s cancer center.
Her oncologist, Dr. Sandra Hazra, decided to treat her stage IIB breast cancer with two chemotherapy agents — Adriamycin and Cytoxan — administered six times every three weeks until about a month and a half before her scheduled delivery date May 9.
The cancer team consulted with Michelle's high-risk obstetrician, Dr. John W. Stewart, to determine which medications could be safely used during pregnancy to treat nausea, constipation and other potential side effects from the chemotherapy.
The chemo would be dosed based on Michelle’s pre-pregnancy weight to avoid increasing the amount as the baby grew.
Her mother and her aunt, Cheri Howard, agreed to take turns making the 2½-hour trip from Urbana in western Ohio to take her to her appointments and stay with her afterward in case she needed help.
On the morning of her first treatment in late November, her aunt brought a bag full of “chemo caps” she knitted for the Parkview Center staff to share with other patients.
Harry couldn’t be there. He was taking his driving test to officially start his new job as a long-distance truck driver after being unemployed since losing his job as a restaurant manager in the summer. (Because the couple were unemployed, Michelle's pregnancy and cancer care are being covered by Medicaid.)
Michelle was in her 14th week of her pregnancy — far enough into the second trimester, doctors agreed, to minimize any risks to her baby.
“The unknown is the worst part,” registered nurse Veronica Shea told her. “Once you get over this first time, it becomes less scary.”
Michelle watched as Shea hooked up the first medicine to a port in her arm.
“I’m feeling it,” she told her aunt a few minutes later. “It’s like a cool sensation.”
Halfway through, her nose became stuffy and her eyes started to water — side effects, she learned, from the chemo.
That evening, Harry surprised her by coming home a day early from his new job. He stayed by her side when one of her anti-nausea drugs gave her a migraine, leaving her in tears.
Baby still healthy
Several days later, she went to Stewart’s office on the Akron General Medical Center campus for a checkup. The image on the ultrasound screen reassured her that her baby was active, apparently unfazed by the first dose of chemo.
“Once the baby’s organs are formed, because they’re not growing as rapidly as a cancer, the baby is not affected,” Stewart explained. “Even if it does cross the placenta, it is OK.”
A breast cancer diagnosis while expecting is rare, occurring in a range estimated by the American Cancer Society at one in every 1,000 to one in every 10,000 pregnancies.
Studies have shown that chemotherapy use during the second or third trimesters doesn’t increase the incidence of birth defects, according to a recent report in the Annals of Oncology.
Likewise, the report said, pregnancies don’t jeopardize breast cancer patients, who have stage-specific survival rates similar to non-pregnant women if treatment courses are the same.
When Michelle gets down about her cancer fight, the fluttering of her baby picks her up. In a few months, she reminds herself, her unexpected but welcome addition will join a blended family that includes her sons, Jacob, 20, and Max, 9; her daughter, Isabella, “Bella,” 6; Harry’s daughter, Alaina, 17; and his son, Trevor, 8.
Along with relying on family and friends, Michelle is getting emotional support for herself and her children from Stewart’s Caring Place, a nonprofit agency in Fairlawn that provides free services for people with cancer and their loved ones.
A counselor at Stewart’s Caring Place meets with Bella and Max to make sure they are coping with their mother’s illness, especially after losing their father in a house fire several years ago.
From the day she was diagnosed with cancer, Michelle has been up front with her children — something the therapist quickly recognized and appreciated.
“My mom is going to lose another boob next summer,” Bella announced during a counseling session, referring to Michelle’s plans to have her breast removed after the baby is born as a preventive measure.
The day after shaving off her hair, Michelle joined eight other area women who also are battling cancer at the support center for a free makeover through Look Good Feel Better. The national program brings together beauty professionals who volunteer their time to teach women who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation techniques to manage appearance-related side effects, such as dry skin and hair loss.
The women joked and laughed as they traded cosmetics from their free goody bags and compared application styles.
Michelle agreed to serve as the model when Dee Curry, a Look Good Feel Better volunteer and owner of Wigs on Wheels, showed the group different wig styles, as well as ways to wear hats and scarves.
“Now we just got to see if there’s a big, long, red-haired wig,” Michelle said. “I’m missing the red hair.”
Though Michelle tried to remain optimistic, her second round of chemotherapy the week before Christmas didn’t go as well as the first. Several hours after leaving the cancer center, her mom had to rush her to Akron General Medical Center with intense abdominal pain and contractions.
After getting fluids to ease her symptoms, she was sent home with orders to rest and drink plenty of water.
The next week, the couple and their children crowded into the exam room at Dr. Stewart’s office on Christmas Eve morning to catch a glimpse of the baby and, hopefully, discover the gender.
Afterward, Michelle shared their big news with family and friends by sending the ultrasound photo with a text message: “IT’S A GIRL!!!”
Michelle and Harry started calling the baby by the name they’d already picked for a girl: Charli, short for Lillian Charlette.
In the weeks that followed, Bella practiced her reading by snuggling next to Michelle, placing her small hand on her mom’s swelling belly and reciting the words to her baby sister.
Harry spent a couple of his weekends painting the nursery different shades of pink in preparation for Charli’s arrival in early May.
Michelle tried to keep active, not wanting to let her kids down. But with each treatment, her symptoms grew worse.
After her third course in early January, Michelle suffered lingering nausea, fatigue, a mouth sore and numbness in her fingers and arms.
Several days before her fourth treatment last week, she ended up on bed rest after another emergency trip to Akron General for contractions. She blamed it on stress from her car breaking down, leaving the couple with a $1,500 repair bill they couldn’t afford.
When she had a moment of weakness, Harry lovingly reminded her she had to stay strong.
“You can’t lose your faith.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or email@example.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.