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My Mother’s Brave Story: The Tale Of Ilana

By Andrea B. Siegel

0-4In the summer of 1991, life was as good as it had ever been. I had previously weathered a miscarriage, two bouts with breast cancer and resulting mastectomies, a difficult stretch through graduate school and a major geographical move. Now I was happily married, healthy, with school behind me. With my second husband, Win, and our young daughter, Hannah, I felt Arizona was a new start. Win found a good job and we’d bought our first home.

At first, we were both ambivalent about another child, but Hannah longed for a sister and, as time passed, the thought of a baby became irresistible. Though I was over thirty-five and had had health problems in the past, we decided why not? The time felt right and there had been no sign of cancer for years. I’d had no trouble conceiving or giving birth to Hannah. After summer check-ups with the doctors, and with their cautious approval, we went ahead. In early September, the test stick in the home pregnancy kit turned bright, positive pink. Hannah’s sibling was on its way. I was nervous, but delighted.

Because of my age and medical history, I was considered high-risk and went to a group practice that specialized in such patients. I had more morning sickness than before, but that was okay—a small price to pay for a baby. As a routine precaution, the office used an ultrasound on all new patients. There was our baby, the size of an olive, perfectly formed, miniature hands waving. From that moment on, there was no question in my mind. This was my child—and I wanted this baby more than ever.

There was also, the doctor said, an insignificant cyst on my left ovary, probably where the egg follicle had burst. Very common, nothing to worry about—we’d keep an eye on it at subsequent appointments. We took our ultrasound snapshots home and showed them to Hannah who was delirious with joy. “Her” baby was finally a reality.

At my next visit in November, the cyst was still there and appeared to have grown. Again, the doctors reassured me it was undoubtedly harmless, but advised me to have it removed. Surgery would be quick, they said, maybe thirty minutes, fairly painless. I’d be back on my feet in no time. Win and I discussed it and decided to go ahead with the surgery as soon as possible. We opted for epidural anesthesia, instead of general, to minimize potential harm to the baby— besides, it was just a simple procedure.

I knew, during hazy periods of awareness throughout surgery, that something was terribly wrong. It was taking far too long and the mood in the operating room wasn’t right. When I came out of recovery, it was clear something bad had happened. And soon I heard it all—the cyst was a tumor, the cancer had spread. My ovaries, fallopian tubes, even my appendix had been removed because of malignancies. Many other areas had been cauterized for the same reason. It looked grim. One insensitive doctor rattled off my chances of survival: not promising. Other doctors presented the standard treatment: a complete immediate hysterectomy, followed by chemotherapy.

No one discussed the foremost thing on my mind: my baby. How had the baby done? Was the baby okay? How could we do a hysterectomy? My uterus was occupied! I kept thinking about the now plum-sized infant to whom I was already so attached.

Soon after surgery, amniocentesis results came in: we had a little girl, completely healthy. My survival was now more important than ever so I elected to go ahead with chemotherapy, though I asked my husband a hard question: what if I didn’t make it in the long run—did he still want this baby? Absolutely.

Ovarian cancer is insidious, often out-of-control before a patient even knows she has it. I had gotten check-ups from both a gynecologist and oncologist just months before my pregnancy and they had failed to detect it. My baby had given me a chance to survive. I would do no less for her.

With each passing week, I became more optimistic. Though I failed to gain weight, she thrived and grew; she had her own agenda. She was vigorous and kicked constantly. At times, I almost forgot that this was anything but a normal pregnancy. After 30 weeks, we were so confident we bought a crib and baby clothes; we contacted a diaper service.

The plan was to deliver her a little early by C-section, to complete my hysterectomy and do a “second look” at the same time. However, in April, at 35 weeks, I spontaneously went into labor. Tests showed the baby’s lungs weren’t quite mature. Labor and a vaginal birth would help develop her lungs, they said. Thus, the plans for the C-section were shelved.

Much to my wonder and joy, with my husband by my side, Ilana was born in the “usual” way late that night: pink, perfect, and screaming. She did need some help with oxygen, but only for a day; soon she was breathing well on her own, gulping down bottles of formula. Though small at birth, she quickly caught up. It’s almost unbelievable to think she went through months of chemotherapy with me, impossible to tell she was premature.

Pretty, lively, strong-willed, and sociable, Ilana is generous with smiles and recently began to laugh. Her big sister Hannah adores her. We all do.

We never doubted our decision. For reasons I can’t explain, I believed it would work out. And once I saw her, I was certain we’d done the right thing. Win endorsed my decision wholeheartedly from the start—I couldn’t have done it without him. Hannah’s affection and unwavering hope for her baby sister’s safe delivery helped make my belief even stronger. It was truly a family matter, a family decision.

Also, as time went on, many people rallied to our side. Support poured in, dinners were cooked, the house got cleaned, and offers of babysitting came from everywhere. We have been so thankful for the concern and help, the faith and generosity. Ilana has been a miracle in so many eyes. One friend wept the first time she saw Ilana, so overcome with emotion and astonishment that this baby actually made it, that I was still here to proudly hold her in my arms.

My own story continues. I’ve had more grueling surgery, more chemotherapy, many more difficult moments. My hair has fallen out, I’ve needed blood transfusions, and my weight dropped even more. My body has had a much harder time enduring chemotherapy since Ilana’s birth. It’s as if the pregnancy protected me against its worst effects. But at least for the time being, the treatment appears to be keeping the cancer at bay. As for what the books and doctors say, my prospects for old age are a long shot. Still, I’m not big on statistics or bleak prognoses. I had a beautiful baby against all the odds, and after that, I believe anything is possible.

Note: It occurred to me rather suddenly this June that it had been 20 years since my mother passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 39, after two successful fights with breast cancer.

While it is somewhat difficult to face the strength of her optimism, knowing this piece was written months before she died, my mother’s story is beautiful. We enjoyed more time with her than would otherwise have been possible, thanks to the pregnancy ultrasound and her hope that she would watch us both grow up. I now live in Japan with my family and enjoy writing, much like my mother. My sister, Ilana, is a college student, who lives in Oregon and is returning from a year abroad in Germany.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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