Pregnancy and cancer are two worlds that rarely collide. So when Raquel Lopez went in to see her doctor for a routine appointment at 28 weeks pregnant and learned that she had colon cancer, panic took over. “I was in shock, complete disbelief,” Lopez tells Yahoo Lifestyle of her diagnosis last year. “I just kept thinking, This isn’t happening.”
Of the one in 1,000 women who develop cancer while pregnant (most commonly, breast cancer), very few are diagnosed with colon cancer. Less than 1 percent of women, Lopez’s doctor told her, get a diagnosis like this one. After hearing the worst, Lopez drove home to break the news to her husband, who was watching their three kids. Lopez had been experiencing gastrointestinal distress, but doctors believed it was ulcerative colitis. Now she knew that it was much worse.
Desperate for more answers, she turned to the web. “I thought, The Internet has everything,” Lopez recalls. “But there was nothing. I couldn’t find a single patient who was pregnant with colon cancer.” As doctors rushed to put together a treatment plan for Lopez that would allow her to fight off cancer while also protecting her fetus, she felt bewildered. Within seven days of the diagnosis, she had a port surgically implanted into her chest through which her chemo could be administered. A week later, her first chemotherapy treatment began.
Although doctors informed her that this specific drug was safe for pregnant women (because the placenta acts as a protective barrier for the baby), without any success stories, she was consumed with worry. That’s when a retired nurse at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. — where Lopez was receiving treatment — remembered a patient from a few years earlier who had undergone the same unique situation: Lisa Wieland.
With Lopez’s permission, the nurse gave Wieland her information, and the two connected over Facebook. Wieland had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015 at 16 weeks pregnant with her third child. Doctors had also been theorizing that she was experiencing ulcerative colitis, but when they did a scope they found instead that it was cancer. “I was horrified, completely shocked,” Wieland tells Yahoo Lifestyle of that day. “It was my third kid, and I kept thinking, Am I even going to be alive for my other kids? I mean, your mind just goes to the worst places.”
Like Lopez, Wieland had raced home from her appointment hoping to find more information or support on the internet, but came up blank. “Thirty seconds after my diagnosis, doctors were already bringing up terminating the pregnancy,” she says. “When I say there was nothing out there, I mean nothing. I wanted to know that it would be OK for my baby, and I couldn’t find that information. I wanted to give that information to someone else.”
In her message to Lopez, Wieland first assured her that the baby would be fine. “I sent her a picture of my daughter Sydney who was 15 months old, and I said, ‘I know you’re getting the same medicines I had, and my baby is 100 percent developmentally on track,’” Wieland says. “I told her that I think she’s the smartest of the three!”
To Lopez, this meant the world. “‘How is your baby doing?’ was the first question out of my mouth,” Lopez remembers. “I knew I could be treated — that I would be OK — but the unknown is how is it going to affect the baby. I’m exposing him to harmful chemicals — is he going to be OK? Lisa reassured me right away, she said he would be OK.”
Lopez’s son, her fourth child, was born eight months ago, completely healthy and the biggest of her four babies. Lopez and her husband named him Maximus Crow — the latter name a testament to, as she told the Chicago Tribune, “an animal that lives and thrives in a toxic environment, just like he did.”
After giving birth, both women had roughly six weeks of recovery time before undergoing surgery to remove the cancer, then two dozen rounds of full-blown chemotherapy. Wieland says she struggled to make it through all 24 treatments, partly out of exhaustion, but persevered. Once connected with Lopez, she felt like her story had a purpose. Through encouraging Facebook messages, she helped Lopez make it through the uniquely excruciating experience.
Lopez and Wieland had discussed meeting in person. but juggling their families and treatments had made it impossible — that is, until Monday. On Lopez’s final day of chemotherapy treatment, she walked through the hospital doors to a standing ovation from doctors, nurses, radiologists, and the one woman who knew what it was like to be in her shoes: Wieland.
In a video of the surprise, the two women embrace through tears. “It was a gift to have someone who knew what I was talking about, who understood what I was feeling and going through. It meant everything,” Lopez tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It took the loneliness out of it. You’re scared and overwhelmed; having someone who understands that is reassuring.”
Now both women want their story, which happens to fall during Colerectal Cancer Awareness Month, to help other women like them feel less alone. “I hope future women find this story and realize there are women who made it through this, and whose babies are perfectly healthy and doing fine,’” Wieland says. “That’s what we’re doing, giving people hope.”
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