“It takes a village,” I remind myself again as I look at the pictures of my newborn daughter, Lily, trying not to cry. Yes, a village for her and a village for me. I didn’t realize when she was born—via emergency C-section on August 4, 2005—how much I would come to value that statement and how much the people in our village would make a difference in my life and hers.
Because it was an uneventful pregnancy (other than the C-section), I anticipated no issues when I returned to work. However, after about a month of being on the job, I just wasn’t feeling right. I was tired, out of breath sometimes, and very often had no energy.
“It’s normal for a new mom to feel this way,” I told myself.
But after awhile, I realized it wasn’t normal. A trip to the doctor and a round of tests later confirmed that something was wrong. On November 21 2005, I was told I had malignant pleural mesothelioma—fancy words for cancer in the lining of my lung. That’s not the kind of news a mom of just 3 ½ months expects to hear.
It stemmed from being unknowingly exposed to asbestos as a child some 30 years ago. What I had thought were the “side effects” of being a new and tired mom turned out to be mesothelioma symptoms.
If it were any other time in my life, my first thought might have been solely about me. But it wasn’t. I had a new baby. If I didn’t beat this diagnosis, Lily and my husband would be living life without me in 15 months; that’s how long the doctors gave me. It didn’t matter. I resolved to live. I had to live.
Recovery rate for mesothelioma is often grim at best. I would have to undergo some radical treatment to have any possibility of getting better. It meant extrapleural pneumenectomy—a fancy name for having surgery to remove my left lung and all of the surrounding tissue.
That was on February 2, and by that time I was in Boston getting treatment from one of the best mesothelioma doctors around. Then I spent 18 long days recovering in the hospital and then 2 more months recovering from chemotherapy and then I had radiation.
That’s when I discovered who was really in my village. Instead of experiencing the normal ups and downs of being a first-time mom, I was sick, and my village—my parents, my husband’s parents, old friends, new friends—they all became an extension of my hands (and heart) when it came to raising Lily.
My daughter lived with my parents while we were in Boston. When they were at work, their own village stepped in to babysit Lily during the day. The kids who were my charges when I was a young babysitter now babysat my daughter. Church friends offered my parents the love and support they needed to get through the day.
Knowing that gave me some peace of mind, but still my heart broke when I saw pictures that my mom emailed me of Lily doing things for the first time like learning to eat solid food, rolling and scooting around, exploring.
My husband would print off the pictures and when the nurses would come by, they would duly ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ with me as we looked at the grainy pictures with me trying to be brave and not cry.
But I soldiered on. Lily was the reason I was there; Lily and my family. We may have been thousands of miles apart, but the bond between us was close and deep, made even more so because of the ordeal we were going through together.
I learned something through all of this. I learned who would happily say they’re part of my village and who wouldn’t. That life is short and precious and fragile. And that I have a lot to be thankful for and to embrace. Cancer is funny like that.
It reminds me of my favorite quote, which goes, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
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