Finding Peace in the Chaos of MBC
May 10, 2023
It was a normal, scorching, summertime day in Vegas. My parents had been visiting and we were having breakfast before dropping them off at the airport. The number calling my phone was “unknown,” so I sent it to voicemail.
The next thing I know, I am listening to a voicemail from Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada requesting me to come in for an appointment with one of their breast surgeons. Maybe it’s not cancer. I was pregnant; lumps are common. I had recently finished breast feeding our baby, who at the time was nine months old. It couldn’t be cancer. No one had said it was yet, so there was still hope. It couldn’t be cancer.
With my mind beginning to spiral, I decided to call back, but it goes to voicemail. My mind is going every which way at this point. I need answers, now. I call my OB office and leave a message for them to call me back. So begins the many phone calls, the messages in voicemails, the being put on hold. The waiting.
My OB was the first to return my call. She told me the biopsy results had come back and it looked cancerous. Still, there was hope. No one had said it yet.
Everything around me was spinning; like I was struggling to keep both feet on the ground. What was happening? I was 34. I had two beautiful children. I was pregnant with our third daughter. I had been accepted into a doctorate program for psychology and classes were starting in two weeks. What was happening? It couldn’t be cancer.
I met with the breast surgeon that day for a consult; and then it happened. The words flew out: “You have breast cancer. The most common kind. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and it is growing rapidly.” I couldn’t process it. I needed my husband there. I needed a hand to hold. I needed someone to pull me down, my body feeling like it was already trying to leave this earth. Within just a few hours, the life we knew was gone without warning. We did not know at the time everything that would continue to unfold. We did not know how hard things could and would get. But I felt the ground beneath me crumble, everything around us shattered. Here we were in this dark tunnel with no light in sight and unable to find the way out.
I met with what would become my oncology team the next day. I was pregnant, what were our options? We did not know the subtype yet. I didn’t even know there could be subtypes. I knew nothing about breast cancer. I only knew that I had it. When I first felt the lump, it was small, maybe the size of a marble. My OB had thought it was dried up milk. By the time I had met with my oncology team, it had filled almost my entire right breast, had recently begun hurting, changed the skin surrounding it, and I could feel lumps in my armpit. They wanted me to meet with a high-risk, maternal fetal medicine (MFM) doctor. Still, no real information was given to me, I felt like I knew nothing.
The next few days were a complete blur. We drove down to California to be with family and drop off our two children, knowing that the next few weeks would be tumultuous as we learned how to navigate the world of breast cancer – scheduling tests and doctors’ appointments and more tests. Talking to friends in the medical field is where we got most of our information. They knew what questions to ask, what information to get. They knew how to get the ball rolling with insurance approvals. They knew about subtypes. They knew that if the cancer had metastasized, my chances for survival being pregnant were significantly decreased. They knew which way to direct us, and for the next few weeks, they were our north star. Our guiding light in this dark world that had suddenly engulfed us.
I was pregnant. Things were complicated. Certain tests couldn’t get scheduled. I couldn’t get staged properly. They needed the “ok” from my MFM OB, but I couldn’t get scheduled with him until the end of July. It was only July 5th. An OB friend reached out to us. The talk of termination was brought up, but that option was still so far from our minds. We needed more time. Time to navigate. Time to get these tests and results back. Time. But waiting also meant the tumor was growing – I could feel it. Ever-present, throbbing, pulsing.
It was then that my husband and I made the devastating decision to terminate the pregnancy. Our OB friend talked us through the process. I would go in to get a shot to stop her heartbeat. The day after, I would go to begin the process of opening my cervix. And the day after that, I would go to the hospital to be induced into labor to deliver my stillborn daughter. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be the life I was living. This couldn’t be the decision I was making. I needed time that I did not have.
On July 9th, I delivered my daughter, Stella Ava. She weighed 1lb, 8.6oz, she was 13 inches long. I held her in my arms. I wept. I told her I was sorry. I kissed her head, her hands. I mourned her. What was this life? Where did this sorrow that was suddenly poured into our lives come from? This deep sorrow. Sorrow that permeates into my bones, my lungs, my heart; all-consuming, omnipotent sorrow.
A couple days later, we found out the subtype was triple positive. Two weeks later, we found out it had metastasized to my liver, spine, pelvis, and clavicle lymph nodes. It was no longer curable, but because I was no longer pregnant, I would be able to receive a better kind of chemo that would hopefully be more effective.
So much has happened since then. At the end of September, I was hospitalized with sepsis due to an infected port. An infection which had spread and lodged into my spine, causing muscle spasms, nerve pain, and leaving me unable to walk, which then led to spinal surgery.
I do not know if I would be here right now if it were not for the family and friends who helped me see that my life was/is important. That as heartbreaking as it was to terminate the pregnancy, it was something that needed to be done so I could survive here for the people that need me.
It took me a long time to accept that fact that I have cancer. I would think to myself, maybe they got it wrong. Maybe these are not my results. In the early days, I would wake up in the morning and, for brief seconds, life would go back to my world before cancer had entered it. And then it would hit me like a wave, suddenly crushing my lungs. Tears would fall, my husband would hold me and we would weep together. I still have these moments.
Sometimes, I get stuck in this looping wave of grief. Grief that takes up so much space it effects my day, effects how present I am with my family and puts me down this spiral where all I can think about is everything I have lost. There are days when I am exhausted and days when everything seems to be a trigger. Slowly, I am learning how to be gentle with myself. I am learning how to let myself feel and ride the waves and I am learning how to get out of them. I am learning how to find peace in the chaos.
It is a conscious decision, every day, to choose to focus on everything I still have; I have life, I have breath. I have family, I have friends. I have love. I get to keep loving. I get to love more deeply. I get to be more thankful, more present. I get to have more laughter, more joy. — Melanie Ngyuen