It all started with a little cough that just wouldn’t go away. I was sure it was nothing — my two little boys were always bringing home some kind of virus from daycare. I was four months pregnant with our third child, and with all the aches and pains of pregnancy, as well as raising two energetic pre-schoolers, running a busy pet supply store, and finishing up an endless renovations on our house, I figured that feeling run-down was simply par for the course. I just needed to power through.
I often think back to that time, to the weeks before I knew what was really happening. Back when I thought it was just a little cold.
But the cough did not let up. I had to cut my hours at work as I couldn’t talk without coughing. Soon, I was unable to sleep and it became painful to bend down to help the kids or even kiss them goodnight. My husband, Mark, essentially became a single parent. I felt useless and sick with worry.
You don’t think of your health when you have it. You don’t chase after your toddler, thinking “I am feeling fantastic today.” Only when something goes wrong are we able to appreciate how we once felt — what it’s like to have an absence of pain, how miraculous taking a deep breath can be.
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I went to my doctor four times and to the emergency room twice. I was given inhalers and different low-dose cough medicines, but nothing seemed to help. And because of my pregnancy, both my family doctor and the ones in the ER were reluctant to run any invasive tests. I didn’t push them — I was just as concerned that the tests might harm the baby. But it got to the point where I was so exhausted, I couldn’t care for the kids at all — I didn’t even trust myself to drive alone. My mom took me to my family doctor one more time, where I begged for something to help me sleep.
That doctor called my obstetrician who promptly admitted me to the hospital as soon as he saw me, thinking I had a bad case of pneumonia. I was so relieved to finally have an answer and a treatment plan — I’d be back at work in no time. But after six days of various medications in an isolation room, pneumonia was ruled out. My condition was worsening. Inhalers and breathing therapy did very little to relieve the cough and I still couldn’t sleep.
After yet more testing, I was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer. Cancer? I was 27 weeks pregnant! This couldn’t be happening — this wasn’t in the plan. I was physically exhausted, mentally exhausted and very sick. I was not only about to fight for my life, but my baby’s life as well. I quickly swallowed the fact that cancer does not discriminate; it did not care that I was only 34, ate kale or was about to have a baby. Life turned upside down for our family and we needed a new plan.
My room was always full of nurses and doctors, debating whether I should deliver the baby or wait. The cancer was very advanced and the fluid was a “pleural effusion” that had built up in the space between my lungs and chest wall; hence the cough. Pregnancy had masked the typical symptoms of this disease. I experienced no fever, no weight loss (I had in fact gained 12 pounds), and no night sweats. Without much time to process what was happening, I was scheduled to start chemotherapy immediately.
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I missed my boys and was furious that I had a disease that could end my life. How could I be pregnant and be starting chemotherapy? I’d been worried about eating Brie cheese and deli meat, and I was about to be injected with something that kills growing cells. The doctors were adamant, however, that it was be the best option for the baby (she wasn’t ready to come out yet) and for me (this cancer was aggressive and I was getting worse by the day).
Your lymphatic system controls your fluids, and mine was not working. I was retaining about 20 pounds of extra fluid; my legs looked like those of an 500-pound man. It felt like my body was being overtaken by this cancer. I started half of the first round of R-CHOP chemotherapy in my hospital room. The anti-body portion of the chemotherapy cocktail was to be given the following week. I was encouraged to monitor how much fluid I was peeing out, but I basically peed out 40 pounds of water. Two days later I weighed five pounds under my pre-pregnancy weight and had dropped a further 10 pounds. I was amazed and happy that the chemotherapy was doing something, but scared about what effect it may have on the baby. I kept telling myself that the doctors’ job was to ensure we both survived and my job was to simply rest and listen.
The baby was monitored every moment of testing and we were sent for daily ultrasounds. Being somewhat of a type A personality, I had always liked to have a sense of control. Fighting cancer during pregnancy made me question everything. Most of all, it tested my ability to let go of what I couldn’t control and focus on what I could. Throughout it all Mark kept reminding me me that I had a chance to fight this cancer — lymphoma has a high rate of long-term success — and win. I tried never to lose sight of the fact that I was one of the lucky unlucky ones.
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On November 5th, 2014, we delivered a healthy baby girl at 34 weeks by caesarean section. She stayed in the NICU for 10 days as a precaution and she needed help feeding. Hearing her first beautiful cry was a relief I cannot describe; my husband and I sobbed as we knew she had made it. My fight for her was done, but now I needed to fight for me so I could be around. I continued seven more rounds of chemotherapy.
Why me? Why not me? It’s hard to be full of gratitude all the time or live every day like it’s your last. I struggle with making sense of it all. Temper tantrums, dishes and bills make full-time gratitude impossible. But, I do feel an underlying calm and strength from what I went through, a knowledge that life is sometimes difficult. And sometimes the only thing you can do is endure. I wish I never got cancer, of course, but at the same I will never wish those experiences away. The challenge of building a new-normal has been humbling and actually fulfilling. I know my views and attitudes toward the stressors life throws my way has changed for the better.
As hard as these photos were to take at the time, I’m glad I have them. They remind me how far I’ve come and what was almost lost.
Jillian Bickmore has been cancer-free for four years. Given the length of time in remission, her prognosis is very good. She’s back at work and busy keeping up with her three kids.