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Having Cancer While Pregnant Taught Me How to Be Truly Present

A devastating cancer diagnosis at 7 months pregnant inspired Sally Jane Waite to find compassionate doctors, strength in a mother's love, and enlightenment in her work.

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Contributing Writer

There’s never a good time to learn that you have cancer, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. I was 31 years old and had no family history of cancer. I was healthy, happy, and excited to start a new family with my husband, Steve. I was also in the process of launching my own jewelry company, Sally Jane, a longtime dream of mine, which was finally underway after months of planning. The concept for the collection was built around a signature gold or silver bee, worn on a necklace or bracelet, designed to remind people to “just bee” present in the moment. But at that present moment, the beautiful life that I had created had suddenly fallen apart.

It happened about two-and-half years ago in October 2013 when severe abdominal pain led my doctors to discover what they thought might be a cyst or twisted ovary. Because I was seven months pregnant, they initially recommended bed rest. But the pain became so unbearable that I started having contractions, forcing my body into premature labor. Doctors decided we couldn’t wait, the cyst needed to come out immediately. Cancer, at that point, couldn’t be further from our minds.

After about five hours of laparoscopic surgery, I woke up, thankfully, still pregnant, and was met with optimism and reassurance that I should go home and rest up while we wait for lab results from pathology. A week later, while I was writing “thank you” notes to my attentive doctors, I received the worst call of my life. It was cancer. The official diagnosis revealed itself over the next 24 hours. I had stage IV colon cancer and it had spread to my ovaries. My only option was chemotherapy and I was given two years to live.

Everything inside me dropped. I went into shock and kept repeating, This can’t be real. Then it hit me, the baby! Suddenly all of my hopes and dreams for our family were in jeopardy. Would I be there to raise our son? I couldn’t comprehend how this had happened. I was beyond terrified about what it meant for my unborn child and what it meant to die. This is such a nightmare, I thought. How have I become this tragedy?

After crying for some time with my husband and immediate family, who had rushed over the minute we returned from the doctor’s office, we all agreed, this is not it. We were not giving in. We had to find the best doctors for colon cancer and were willing to travel or relocate anywhere for medical care—though, as it turned out, we didn’t have to. We were recommended oncologist David Ryan, M.D., who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, just a 15-minute drive from our home in Newton, Massachusetts. Shaking, Steve looked into my eyes and reassured me that we were going to get through this. Hearing him say this meant the world to me.

Upon meeting Dr. Ryan, we knew right away we were in good hands. He was the first doctor to ask us how we met as a couple, which made me break down in tears. The humanity of it was so touching. He believed there was a chance that I could be cured. We worked together, along with some amazing obstetricians, to devise a safe labor plan to bring Sam, our son, into the world at 36 weeks in November. Even though I knew what was waiting for me outside the delivery room, I couldn’t help but think, This is the most amazing experience of my life. I loved having him. I’ve always wanted to be a mom and he was such a joy.

I was allowed one week at home to bond with Sam before I had to start treatment, including getting a portacath (a small medical device implanted just beneath the skin that connects to a vein) and a colonoscopy.  Chemotherapy started soon after that.. I remember having a funny walk down the hallway to my doctor’s office because I hadn’t fully recovered from giving birth. It was a really emotional time, but I was so steadfast on the goal. Once I decided that I was going to be there for Sam because he needed me, it was my focus. I went into treatment with a game-face on. I’m here and I’m ready.

After six rounds of chemotherapy, two intense surgeries to remove cancer, and five more rounds of chemo, I was starting to feel better—though I was totally beat. As a new mom, exhaustion was expected, but this was next-level. Still I was excited to spend every chance I could with Sam, who was such a good, patient baby. He ate well and slept through the night as if he understood that Mommy needed him to be on his best behavior at this time. He has been a huge motivator for me.

Everything was going well for a while until I needed another surgery in August 2015 to address a spot of cancer on my liver. That fall, I surpassed my two-year death sentence, but not with a complete clean bill of health. Currently, my doctors are monitoring a recurrence in my abdominal muscle that they believe may have been a side effect of my treatments.  With more chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, they believe that by this summer I should make a full recovery.  Nothing else has returned in two years, which is incredibly positive.  I’m too nervous to say that I beat the odds just yet, but I’m feeling good about it and ready to pick up where I left off.

Returning to my Sally Jane jewelry company, the concept to “bee present” had taken on a whole new meaning for me. I had promised myself, if I got through this, I would be the best mom I could be to Sam and that I wouldn’t waste my life. I would use my talents and pursue my dreams. When these things happen to a person, you can become so scared to try anything new. I didn’t want that for myself or my family. I wanted Sam to see that I could survive this and still go out and live my life.

Related: What Does It Really Mean to Live Mindfully?

With this in mind, the jewelry brand evolved from “just bee” to more inspiring messages, including “bee strong,” “bee courageous,” “bee bold,” and “bee a survivor.” I’m not only referring to cancer patients when I say “survivor.” We all go through difficult times, but if we persevere, we can get through it and, for me, the bee is a symbol of that. Bees have tiny wings that can barely carry their own bodyweight, but when they flap fast enough (about 230 times per second!), they’re airborne and on the move. That’s strength and perseverance.

The inaugural Sally Jane collection, which debuted in August, consists of 12 pieces, all of which feature a bee, either the figure or the word. As the line expands to 16 pieces this summer, I hope to include more symbols, like a flower with the sentiment of this message: “We need each other to blossom through life.” It a reminder that we’re not alone. Your family, friends, and community are all here to support you, if you let them. Right now, my neighbors, for example, are doing a meal chain to make dinner for us on the weeks that I have chemotherapy. It’s so important to surround yourself with good people, including your doctors. The best oncologists know you are not just a statistic, but that you are a human being with your own experiences. It’s important to seek out those people who can recognize and respect that notion to help you get through whatever life throws your way.

Sally Jane Waite shared her story with writer Cristina Goyanes, who authored this piece.



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