Sarcoma relapse survivor: MD Anderson gave me a second chance to savor new motherhood
My husband, Wes, and I moved to The Woodlands — a suburb of Houston about 30 miles north of downtown — in September 2019. We made that decision primarily to be closer to MD Anderson. I am a survivor of a rare type of cancer called undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma, and I need to be monitored closely in case of a recurrence.
By the time we finally moved to Texas, I thought I was done with cancer. MD Anderson had already saved my life once. I’d been cancer-free since December 2018.
But MD Anderson would save my life — and my chance to enjoy new motherhood — a second time in 2021. Here’s how it happened.
Friend’s reality check leads to follow-up appointment
Wes and I conceived our daughter less than a year after moving to Texas. We hadn’t thought a biological child was even possible for us, due to my sarcoma treatment. So, Aurora was our miracle baby. She was born on May 4, 2021, and was perfect in every way.
I was on Cloud 9. It felt like I had finally left cancer behind me and was enjoying an entirely new chapter of my life.
Then, when Aurora was just 9 days old, a friend texted me to congratulate me and see how I was doing. She said, “Also, not to be a downer, but ... when is your next scan at MD Anderson?”
Oh, right. Scans. I was supposed to get them every three months. Due to my pregnancy, I hadn’t had one in almost a year.
Scan reveals sarcoma recurrence
Before that, I had been Captain Vigilant about keeping my follow-up appointments. So, I was surprised by how long it took me to schedule the next scan. Part of it, I suppose, was the way days move so quickly when you have a newborn. But I also didn’t want it to be real.
The needles, the hospital, the chemo, the surgery. I thought it was all over. Pregnancy was the first time since my sarcoma diagnosis in 2017 that I’d actually been able to forget about cancer. Now, I realized I had to face it again – this time, for our newborn daughter. I scheduled the scan.
Aurora was 8 weeks old when I got the news. Sarcoma medical oncologist Dr. Anthony Conley told me the cancer had returned, and in the same place as before. I would need a Whipple procedure to remove it. This is a major surgery in which part of the pancreas and bile duct are removed, as well as the gallbladder and several lymph nodes.
I couldn’t believe it. The thought of recurrence is what keeps us cancer survivors up at night. Now, I knew what it felt like to hear the news that cancer had returned. It was surreal.
Treatment for my sarcoma recurrence
I met again with surgical oncologist Dr. Matthew Katz, one of my favorite people on Earth. He’s the only doctor I trust to perform a Whipple procedure. His credentials are impeccable and he performed my first surgery. He told us that if there was enough space between the tumor and my pancreas, I might not need a Whipple procedure. Still, I should plan on having one.
Dr. Katz performed the surgery on Aug. 16, 2021. When I woke up from the anesthesia, my husband was smiling. I hadn’t needed the Whipple procedure after all, for a second time. I was also cancer-free again and wouldn’t need any additional treatment. I was overjoyed.
Extraordinary support after major surgery helped keep me breastfeeding
Still, I’d just had major abdominal surgery. It required a large incision that needed time to heal. That meant I wouldn’t be able to pick up my daughter for several weeks. I was also on strong pain relievers and muscle relaxers, which could be passed to her through my breast milk.
I’d been ready to do whatever it took to watch Aurora grow up. But the prospect of not being able to keep breastfeeding her was heartbreaking.
That’s when my husband and medical team stepped in. I really don’t have enough kind words to say about them. They literally propped me up and held the pumps to my breasts when I couldn’t, so I could “pump and dump” my milk for two-and-a-half days while I was in the hospital. Aurora drank milk that I’d previously pumped until I could get off the medications.
After two more days of frequent feedings, my milk came back completely. So, if I had a lot of help and didn’t try to pick her up, I could nurse my daughter. It was really hard with the incision still healing. But it was so beautiful to be able to bond with her like that, even if I couldn’t hold her. I don't have words to express how much it meant to me.
One of the greatest moments of my life
On Oct. 29, 2021, after 74 days of recovery, my doctors finally gave me permission to pick up my baby girl. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. Holding her again unlocked an even deeper appreciation for all the blessings in my life.
I am thankful to my friend for asking me the hard question that prompted me to get the scan I needed. I am thankful to Dr. Katz and MD Anderson for making me cancer-free again. And I am thankful to Wes and the nurses and support staff at MD Anderson for helping me nurse our daughter.
Thanks to all of them, I was able to breastfeed Aurora until she was 13 months old. And I am still here today, watching my daughter grow up. I am forever grateful.