There are some stories that just deserve to be told over and over again. My wife’s family has had some real battles with cancer over the last three years, with my wife opting to have a preventative double mastectomy to hopefully eliminate her chances for breast cancer. So when you hear a story of someone overcoming the Big C, it tends to stick with you. With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, I knew of one story that I definitely wanted told one more time.
Dawn Hood and I were both hired to work at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries at around the same time. I didn’t get to know her very well though until, after about a year of working at RZIM, we both applied for the same position within the ministry. Long story short, Dawn was the better person for the job, but through the process of applying and interviewing, we got to know one another a little bit. Then, when I moved departments in 2009, I ended up just down the hall from her.
It was then that I really got to know Dawn. She is a true Southerner – sweet, gentile, polite, with enough of a touch of redneck to make fun to be around. What drew Dawn and I into many discussions was our love of writing; Dawn happens to have penned one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read, and she gave me the privilege of helping her work on the draft.
And if you doubt that her story could be all that impressive, ask yourself this: could you give birth to a baby while battling cancer and chemo treatments?
Me neither. That’s why I’ve invited Dawn to share a truncated version of that story with the blog today.
I hope you enjoy reading Dawn’s post, and that, if you do, you’ll visit her blog as a regular reader. The URL is easy to remember: http://dawn-hood.blogspot.com. I promise you’ll be glad you did. You can also read more about Dawn at Northside Hospital’s webpage, where Dawn’s story is not only a featured article, it was also part of an Atlanta-wide awareness campaign, and was turned into billboards and a radio commercial featuring Dawn.
Kissing 40 On The Mouth
In my 20s and 30s, I pledged to turn 40 kicking and screaming. I jokingly made my list of three wishes: to be the bald chick on Star Trek (she was so cool), get a “boob job” (I was never what one would call ‘perky’), and have a tattoo (to satisfy my inner rebel).
In September 2001, my husband worked for a company in a sales position, specifically on a large account that after closing was going to provide a hefty commission check. Our family had outgrown our house and his commission was going to be the icing on the cake for some new furniture and other goodies to make a new place our new home.
Tuesday morning after Labor Day he went to the office only to be told that his position had been terminated – for no specific reason. And with that, he lost the job, the account, and the commission. Our house plans came to a screeching halt.
Then, to our horror, we witnessed the events of September 11th along with the rest of the country and most of the world. As if all that was not enough, we learned two weeks later that I was pregnant with our third child. Oops. A few weeks shy of 39, we had the all-American one boy and one girl. I worked only part-time, and the idea of starting over with pre-school and little league or dance recitals didn’t sound very appealing.
In October we scheduled a visit to my OB-GYN for my first pregnancy check-up. The instant my midwife touched my right breast her facial expression changed. She went from, “wonder what I’ll have for lunch today” to “uh-oh, that’s not right.” My radar went on high alert.
She told us a few minutes later in her office, “Everything looks to be in good order except I felt something in your right breast and I want you to have it checked. I’m sure it’s nothing, but since you’re pregnant, I’d like to be sure.” We left her office with the names and phone numbers of two breast surgeons she wanted us to talk to for further testing.
After meeting with one of the breast surgeons, I went to the hospital’s Breast Center for a core needle biopsy. After administering local anesthetic, the doctor took four tissue samples from my right breast and sent us home. Walking across the parking lot with an ice pack across my chest, I was certain we would get an “all clear” sometime in the next few days.
November 12th. 11:45 a.m. The phone call. You know, the phone call. My doctor said very simply, “All four tissue samples were malignant. You have cancer and should see your doctor as soon as possible. I’m sorry”. I hung up the phone in disbelief. The rest of that day was a blur of phone calls, questions, setting appointments, and chocolate chip cookies.
We learned that my tumor was feeding on estrogen, which my body was producing en masse because of the pregnancy. It was like having cancer on steroids. First surgery: lumpectomy went smoothly and our surgeon was optimistic that he had obtained clean margins. He did not. More surgery. Our surgeon was confident this time that we would get a good report. We did not. The day after Christmas we received the news that I would have to undergo a mastectomy. And I really began to wonder where this was all going to end. Hanging up the phone, I walked out of our bedroom, looked at my husband and said quietly, “This sucks”.
In an effort to keep our mental faculties in order, my husband and I had developed quite a sense of humor with regard to what we were facing. We jokingly invited a few friends over for a final viewing of my breast the night before surgery. One of my husband’s buddies actually said he was coming. January 8th, 2002, my right breast was removed.
Over the next three months of February, March, and April, I had four chemotherapy ‘cocktails’ of Adriamycin and Cytoxan. My hair started falling out exactly 14 days after the first treatment. When I was ready, my husband lovingly and carefully shaved my head. I looked surprisingly like the bald chick on Star Trek – except for the dark circles under my eyes – and the hollow cheeks – and the swollen belly.
I learned a lot during those months. I learned that I could clear the aisle at a store in about three seconds flat. I learned that we have nose hair and eyelashes for a reason – and I missed mine. I learned that the soft, warm hands of my two children could make my cold, bald head feel warm as toast. I learned what it means to feel ferociously protective of an unborn child. And I learned that good friends and loyal family should never be taken for granted.
After my final treatment in April, we began looking forward to the birth of our child, another boy. The doctors had been evasive about side effects he might have suffered because my case was rare and there were not many reliable medical studies to reference. I had trouble gaining weight; our goal at that point was to get the baby to five pounds before he was born and avoid a stay in the NICU.
On May 7, 2002, at 4:02 p.m., our little bundle entered the world with just one push from Mommy. His beautiful, perfect little head was about the size of a peach. We were ecstatic when he weighed in at a whopping five pounds, eleven ounces. For the first time since I had learned I was pregnant, I leaned over the bed and threw up in a trash can.
Six days later I began radiation. My final treatment, and quite a celebration, came on July 3rd. It was truly Independence Day for us.
Four months passed and my Mom hosted a surprise birthday party for me – my 40th. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a birthday more. Surrounded by people whose love and prayers had sustained us in those dark, uncertain months, it was truly one of the best days of my life. My son, who will celebrate his 9th birthday on Saturday, is a daily reminder that God is still in the business of miracles. Along with excellent checkups, I’m now sporting a full head of hair. My ‘boob job’ is now complete and I have my tattoo: a butterfly designed out of a breast cancer ribbon, resting gracefully atop my reconstructed breast.