Seven months ago, Michelle Lang-Schock was faced with a choice: Fight breast cancer or carry a baby to term.
She chose both.
Michelle’s battle with cancer isn’t over yet.
But her pregnancy through a mastectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy has ended with the ultimate gift: a perfect new life.
“She’s such a blessing,” Michelle said. “It still feels like a dream.”
For Michelle and her husband, Harry, their newest family member is a miracle baby in many ways.
Their journey started a few months after their wedding last May, when Michelle, or “Missey” as many of her friends and family members call her, discovered a lump in her right breast.
Because the couple were unemployed at the time and didn’t have health insurance, she qualified for a free mammogram and follow-up care through the state-sponsored Breast and Cervical Cancer Project, also known as the Pink Ribbon Project.
The newlyweds were relieved when the mammogram and an ultrasound determined the lump Michelle felt was simply a fatty tumor, not a cancerous mass. But a case manager for Pink Ribbon arranged for her to meet with a breast specialist for a second opinion just to be safe.
The day before her appointment with Dr. Lee Anne Sprance, medical director of the Breast Care Program at Summa Barberton Hospital, a home pregnancy test revealed the Wadsworth couple were expecting a surprise addition to their family.
She’s 42 and he’s 53. With five children ages 7 to 21 from previous relationships between them, adding a baby to their blended family wasn’t something the couple expected.
Still getting used to the idea of being pregnant, Michelle wasn’t too concerned when she went to her appointment with the breast specialist.
During the exam, Sprance agreed the lump in Michelle’s right breast wasn’t a problem. But the doctor examined the other breast and noticed a small, barely detectable dimpling under Michelle’s nipple, which was only visible after she lifted her arms.
A subsequent ultrasound and biopsy in the days that followed confirmed the diagnosis: Michelle had cancer in her left breast.
‘You’re going to fight’
Michelle and Harry agreed to aggressively treat her tumor while preserving the life of their unborn child.
Again and again, Michelle heard words of admiration from acquaintances, friends and even strangers.
“You’re so brave.”
“You’re so strong.”
Michelle doesn’t see it that way, though.
I’m just doing what any mother would do, she thinks to herself.
“When you get diagnosed, you’re not going to roll over and do nothing,” she said. “You’re going to fight.”
A breast cancer diagnosis while expecting is rare, occurring in about one per 3,000 U.S. pregnancies, according to the National Cancer Institute. But medical experts say the number of cases are increasing as women delay starting a family until later in life, when the risk of developing cancer increases.
Had Michelle’s cancer not been detected early, it likely would have continued to grow and spread, fueled by the hormones of her pregnancy.
After having her left breast removed during the first trimester of her pregnancy in late October, Michelle underwent six rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks at Barberton Hospital’s Parkview Center.
Doctors assured her the potent drugs would attack her cancer without harming her baby if given after the first trimester.
Michelle finished her treatments a couple of months before her due date of May 30 to give her body time to recover.
As the fatigue and nausea from the chemotherapy treatments subsided, the tiredness and pains from the third trimester of pregnancy took over.
Her high-risk obstetrician decided to induce labor as soon as safely possible. The goal: Deliver a strong, healthy baby two or three weeks before her due date so Michelle could continue her cancer fight.
Plans to induce labor a few days before Mother’s Day were put on hold when results from an amniocentesis showed the baby’s lungs needed another week to develop.
So the following week, Michelle and Harry went to Akron General Medical Center to await their baby’s arrival. Her mother, Lin Lang Tyler; aunt Cheri Howard; 7-year-old daughter, Bella; and 9-year-old son, Max, joined them for the big day.
Around 9:15 on the morning of May 16, a medical resident broke Michelle’s water to get labor going.
“Is the baby coming now?” Bella asked impatiently minutes later.
“We’re working on it,” Michelle responded with a laugh.
For several hours, Michelle talked with her family and listened to CDs of the Bee Gees, the Carpenters and Rod Stewart to pass the time.
Harry rubbed her back sympathetically as she quietly breathed through her contractions.
Time for baby
After getting an epidural to ease her pain, her labor appeared to be progressing slowly. By 1 p.m. she was only four to five centimeters dilated — just about halfway there.
Despite the epidural, the pain grew more intense.
Minutes after getting another dose of anesthesia around 2 p.m., Michelle started crying and gripping the bed rails. In an instant, she sat up and yelled in pain.
“I’m feeling pressure!”
Everything was happening so fast. There was no time for the anesthesia to take effect or for her doctor to get there.
“Breathe, baby, breathe,” her mother encouraged as Harry stood by her side.
“She’s coming out! I have to push!”
“Her head’s right there,” Nanette Salomone, a registered nurse in labor and delivery, said.
At Salomone’s calm urging, second-year obstetrician-gynecology resident Jennifer Mittlestead rushed into the room and slipped the umbilical cord off the baby’s neck.
Lillian Charlette “Charli” Schock was born at 2:15 p.m., weighing 6 pounds, 11 ounces.
Two lives saved
The cherub-faced baby with dark eyes and light blonde hair stretched her tiny arms and let out a loud, reassuring cry.
“She’s fine,” Michelle’s mother said with relief. “She’s healthy.”
As Charli was placed in her arms, Michelle gazed lovingly at her newborn baby girl.
“Hi, I’m Mommy,” she whispered, softly kissing Charli on the head.
Michelle’s fears were gone. Her prayers had been answered.
“I was scared every day,” she said. “I was scared something was going to happen to her. With her being out, I’m so much more at peace.”
The next day, the case manager from the Pink Ribbon program visited the new mother and baby in the hospital.
Tears filled Michelle’s eyes when she saw the nurse whose insistence on getting a second opinion led to the breast cancer diagnosis early in her pregnancy.
“You saved my life,” Michelle told her, giving her a hug. “Because of you, I’ve got my miracle.”
“If it wasn’t for you, Missey would be dying in a couple weeks,” Harry agreed as he cradled his new daughter. “But because of you, I have both my girls.”
There’s a photo of Charli hanging in the Pink Ribbon office. She’s the first baby born under the local program designed to save lives one woman at a time.
In this case, two lives were at stake.
Michelle knows her battle must continue.
Next month, she’ll undergo a PET (positron emission tomography) scan — something that couldn’t be done during her pregnancy. The test will make sure the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of her body.
If everything goes as expected, she’ll start radiation therapy five days a week for five or six weeks to the lymph nodes surrounding her removed breast. She’ll also need to take medication for at least five years to reduce the risk of her cancer returning.
Early next year, she plans to have her other breast and ovaries removed to prevent another cancer diagnosis.
“It’s still worth it,” she said. “If I have to fight, it’s still worth it.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or email@example.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.