The overhead lights shone with the migraine-inducing intensity required in the admissions department of the ambulatory surgery center where I was working as an energetic young nurse. Like all the other work-day mornings, I woke up with just enough time to get myself ready and get to work. Not yet a mama, I had no kids to get ready for the day, so I was able to cruise into the hospital in my Volkswagen, rush into my scrubs and hit the ground running. Lots of patients needed to be checked in every day, and this day was no exception. I was buzzing from room to room, my IV kits in hand, bags of pre-op antibiotics ready to hang.
I saw one of our young, well-loved urology surgeons heading my way, lacking his usual lively demeanor. His face held an expression that was a mixture of hesitancy and dread. I could tell he needed to tell me something serious as he pointed me into a vacant patient room.
“I’ve reviewed your kidney ultrasound from last week,” he said, slowly.
I had passed the one and only kidney stone of my life and one of the perks of working on a surgery floor–I had flagged down a urologist that morning and said “Hey look at this!” proudly presenting my little rock rolling around in a specimen collection cup. He sent me for a kidney ultrasound to make sure there weren’t more hiding in there waiting to wreak havoc on my body that was in the 25th week of pregnancy.
“Your spleen. It’s covered in lesions.” I felt the air rush out of the room and my heart jumped into my throat.
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
His face darkened as he replied, “It’s almost always lymphoma.”
Cancer. Not exactly what I was expecting hear midway through my first pregnancy as a spry 25 year old nurse with the most benign health history ever seen.
Terror shot through my body and the tears of panic surged without a hint of stopping. As I made my way out of our surgical department after getting clearance to go home for the day, I reassured my work girlfriends who were so very dear to me and so incredibly excited about my pregnancy, that everything was fine with the baby.
I can’t remember who I called first. I assume I probably called my husband. I don’t remember the 25 minute drive home.
Life as I knew it changed that day. Pregnancy became less about preparing a cute nursery, and more about hedging my bets on whether or not I would live long after this baby was born. I was a mix of fear, anxiety, and denial. Since I was pregnant, there were no further tests that could be done safely, until after I’d delivered. This set me up for an excruciating game of waiting for a diagnosis.
I had to find an internal medicine doctor in addition to my OB-GYN. My internal med doc set me up to begin seeing an oncologist. My oncologist was very sweet and walked me through the differences between Hodgkins vs. Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, treatment plans for both, survival rates, and since I was still clinging to the ideals of new motherhood…would I be able to breastfeed with either of these courses of treatment? Would I lose my hair? Would I be able to hold my baby if I was receiving cancer treatment, or would my very body that now encapsulated this little life, soon be too toxic to be within touching distance of him?
On the inside, the fact that I might die became a reality that I didn’t want to face, and I avoided thinking about it as much as possible, but occasionally I would be blindsided by fear of the unknown. One late summer day, the air was warm and the world looked beautiful with the green orchard stretching across the valley to pine tree speckled hills that reached up to a blue sky, and I was walking up the sidewalk to our house when it hit me. Maybe I wouldn’t be here to walk my baby boy up this sidewalk after his first day of kindergarten. I looked out over the green grassy lawn and wondered how many years I would be here to see him play. A flood of tears came and breath rushed out of my lungs. As my husband came up to comfort me in the midst of my sobs, I wondered how a world so beautiful could hold such devastating realities.
The rest of my pregnancy was fraught with this bittersweet tension of trying to enjoy this active life growing inside of me, and wondering how much of that little life I’d live on to see.
I tried to carry on as though this wasn’t all happening. I didn’t want this looming cancer diagnosis to suck the joy right out of this pregnancy. I cherished the baby showers hosted for me by friends and family, and I lived in an alternating pattern of denial and bursts of hope.
Meanwhile with every passing day I knew I was getting 24 hours closer to getting an answer about this mystery lurking beneath my ribs.
How could this be? How could I be staring a possible terminal illness in the face while in my mid-20s? Would I orphan this baby boy? Would he sleep through the night? Would I need chemotherapy? Would he take to breastfeeding? How much would he weigh? Would I lose my hair? My mind bounced back and forth with angst between these two uncharted territories of raising babies and cancer treatments.
Finally, 4 days after my due date I gave birth. The experience left me feeling a wild combination of elation and fear and sheer overwhelm, but I had made it through pregnancy and delivered my son.
Whatever would lie ahead, I knew this: I was born to persevere. Fear would not win because I had been given this precious gift of new life and the intense desire to watch him grow. This little boy deserved everything I had, and I was willing to do anything to stay with him.
Now on the cusp of his 9th birthday, I marvel at the God-woven story that has unfolded. I am alive, healthy, and cancer isn’t even a word that’s used in this house. I don’t know why; I don’t know how; but there’s a part of me that believes I received something unexplainable, maybe even miraculous. That certain cancer? It was never found. I baffled the doctors and they couldn’t believe what they saw; nothing. They removed my spleen to diagnose the problem and received quite a shock. Not lymphoma. No cancer. Instead, I had an extremely rare disease called sarcoidosis that had only localized in my spleen, and I stand today without a hint of disease in my body.
Kristi Ahrens is a Jesus-girl, wife to a hardworking man, mom to 3 strong and zesty kids, and a friend and sister to many. She likes to dream and imagine what the world will look like as God’s love continues to expand across our globe. She is passionate about raising up courageous, loving kids, and finds solace in books, coffee, friends, writing, and quiet moments in the early mornings.