The excitement of my pregnancy quickly faded into the background. I rubbed my growing belly, disbelief that my pregnancy celebration was overcast by ER/PR+, stage IIB Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. At 31 years old, I never saw this curveball coming. Twelve weeks pregnant and fighting breast cancer. Impossible, or so I thought. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Breast cancer is the most common cancer in pregnant and postpartum women and occurs in about 1 in 3,000 pregnant women.”
As the tears poured down my cheeks uncontrollably, holding onto every word my doctor said, I was overwhelmed and filled with brokenness. All I could think about was fighting for my life, for my 2.5-year-old named Sunbeam, and keeping my unborn child healthy and safe.
Being pregnant with breast cancer made this journey a waiting game. It was unsafe to begin treatment until the middle to end of my second trimester. First, I underwent a unilateral mastectomy on my right side. I am very fortunate that someone was able to care for Sunbeam for a couple of weeks as I recovered.
Reality kicked in when he returned home. It was time to tackle four rounds of chemotherapy, while still trying to be the attentive and involved mom Sunbeam knew. This meant using my cancer treatment as the ultimate life lesson in empathy, caretaking, and saying no. I remember throwing numerous pity parties; perhaps it was pregnancy emotions, but my life felt so surreal at the time. I would express my feelings honestly to him while he hugged me tightly. Sunbeam was the best caretaker I could ask for. He would prepare my snacks and help me clean as much as possible. Before cancer, I always took Sunbeam to numerous events after school and on weekends. That part of his life stopped during treatment. I did my best to maintain a sense of normalcy, but I was candid with him when my body ached and the fatigue overwhelmed me. Those days, I tried to instill in him the importance of self-care and doing one nice thing for yourself each day. Our favorite activity was giving ourselves honey facials while drinking juice from fancy glasses. It always lifted my spirits.
Then the pandemic hit, and I was thrown into working from home, homeschooling Sunbeam, attending chemo, and growing a child. Life was chaotic. People would often praise me for doing so much, and I always responded by saying I don’t have a choice. There were now little eyes watching my every move. I had to show up for my children to the best of my ability. I had to show up for myself. Some days, showing up meant lying on the couch watching Sunbeam’s favorite shows together; on others, it meant a day full of activities in the house.
I will never forget Sunflower’s birth. Minor contractions woke me up early and I knew this would be the last time Sunbeam was an only child. It must have been the adrenaline rush, but I knew it had to be memorable! I quickly transformed our house into a sports arena. When he woke up, I was in active labor, but that didn't stop us from racing cars, playing hockey, and eating our favorite foods. He did not know his baby sister was on the way as we laughed and talked.
I drove Sunbeam and our dog fifteen minutes away to my parents when the time between contractions lessened. Sickness overcame me as I returned home, and within minutes of walking in the door, I found myself giving birth to Sunflower as my neighbor caught her.
I attempted to nurse with my one remaining breast. It was a struggle to produce milk, and Sunflower always wanted more. To limit my stressors, I opted to supplement with donor breast milk. I grieved not being able to breastfeed for a more extended period. I felt like a failure as a woman and a mom. It still hurt even though I knew a fed baby was best. I appreciate the thousands of ounces of donor-pumped milk; they kept her nourished and thriving. I am thankful for all the women who helped me feed my daughter. Their kindness truly blessed my family.
After six weeks of recovery and trying to balance a new two-child household, I resumed treatment with four more rounds of chemotherapy. Surprisingly, my white blood cells struggled to bounce back quickly, so I had to rely on the Neulasta patch. It kicked my butt with all the spasms and cramps. The immobilizing pain caused by this patch made holding my newborn daughter and walking painful and difficult. At this point, I learned to stop judging myself as a parent, as I had to let go of every idea of what I would not let Sunbeam do because I needed the space to sleep and manage the pain.
Throughout this pregnant-with-breast-cancer experience, I often questioned if I was making the best choices for Sunflower and Sunbeam. I often stayed up late wondering if Sunbeam would remember this time in his life and how I handled it. Breast cancer forced me to prioritize myself and become selfish with my time, so I could give my all to treating the illness, growing a baby, and healing. But this required Sunflower and Sunbeam to sacrifice a lot. They experienced a mom full of pain, sadness, and anxiety who could not be as active and energetic. But they also learned invaluable lessons that will be important throughout life, such as managing their expectations, self-care, and setting boundaries.
Looking back, I hope Sunflower and Sunbeam know their “mommy baby,” as they affectionately call me, did what I needed to do in this period of our lives to live so we could keep making memories together. From my example, I hope they recognize they have all they need within to keep going even if the road ahead seems too challenging.
This story was written by Niya Kight, for our Hello Parents series. Our mission is to create a community of extreme inclusivity. Appreciating what makes us different and what we all have in common. No judgment. Just a village of support.