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Drugs, Hugs and Losing My Jugs: A Breast Cancer Journal - October 31, 2017 - Penelope Saved Me

This is the last entry in a 31-day Breast Cancer Awareness Month exclusive series featuring the real journal entries of breast cancer survivor, Jessica Sliwerski. Read the previous entry here.

“It must be rough having a baby right now,” the woman across from us said, observing my bald head, the chemo infusion bruises patchworking my right arm, and the infant in my lap. “I can’t even imagine…”

Two years earlier, at dinner in a crowded restaurant in Brooklyn, my husband, Kyle, declared, “We should have a baby this year.”

Mid-sip, I placed my wine glass on the table. “No way. I do not want to get pregnant right now.”

“I really want to be a father. I’m turning 35 this year. I don’t want to be an old dad.”

For almost two years the only thing Kyle and I fought about (other than the correct way to load the dishwasher) was when we would start a family. He was ready. I wasn’t.

I worried that I couldn’t excel in my career and be a mother. I was convinced pregnancy would ruin my body. Preserving my vanity felt far more important than motherhood.

But most of all, I didn’t want to share Kyle’s affection with anyone else. As it was, I felt I was competing with our Yorkshire Terrier.

“I’m not ready!” I protested, bursting into tears. “Let’s wait another year or five,” I pleaded.

Kyle reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “You’re going to be a great mother,” he said.

I wasn’t entirely on board, but I loved Kyle too much to continue to fight. He was my best friend, we were a great team, we’d worked hard to build a beautiful life together. I wasn’t ready to have a baby, but I knew I’d never be ready. So I whispered, “OK,” and consoled myself with the assumption it would take me at least a year to actually get pregnant.

Then I got pregnant. Three weeks later. No standing on my head, no obsessive tracking of my ovulation, no special vitamins. I got pregnant on a glass-and-a-half of red wine.

If you ask Kyle, he’ll you he has super-sperm, but the truth is time was not on my side.

So, there I was. Totally pregnant. But I didn’t look pregnant. My doctor and I attributed it to my petite frame and the fact that it was my first pregnancy. We figured eventually I’d pop. Except I didn’t, and at 26 weeks we learned why.

A routine ultrasound showed that my girl was shrinking before our eyes, a growth-restricted baby who’d dropped in weight from the 12th percentile to below the 1st percentile. To speed my daughter’s maturation, I was given two steroid shots — one in each butt cheek and painful as hell — but nothing near the agony I felt in my heart.

This was my baby. I could feel her kick and roll and hiccup. I talked to her. Kyle read books to her. She had a name — Penelope James — and an Eric Carle-themed nursery and a fucking Bugaboo stroller with a sidecar compartment for our Yorkie to ride in.

I was instructed to pack my hospital bag because it was unlikely I would make it to 28 weeks. We did a tour of the hospital’s NICU and spoke with a doctor about what to expect — the little plastic baby houses, the tubes, the IVs, and likely several months in NICU before Penelope could come home. I had ultrasounds every other day because the general consensus was my placenta would crap out at any moment and my baby would need to be immediately c-sectioned.

I went to each doctor appointment terrified I would learn I’d lost Penelope. To everyone’s surprise, she proved herself to be a fighter. Though she gained mere ounces when she should have been packing on pounds, she was otherwise thriving.

I stuffed my face with steaks in an effort to gain weight, and she eked out just enough from my janky placenta to convince the doctors to let her stay in her mama. Together, we made it to 36 weeks and as is the protocol with growth-restricted babies, I was c-sectioned that day.

Penelope was 2 pounds, 13 ounces. After a kiss and a photo, she was whisked away to NICU. She was one of the tiniest babies in the ward, but from the get-go she was strong as hell.

I spent my first night of motherhood alone. I didn’t even have Kyle with me — the hospital didn’t allow fathers to stay the night unless a private room, not covered by insurance, was purchased. After months of intense cohabitation, that night I listened to my roommate as she cooed to her healthy newborn while I stared at a picture of Penelope on my phone. I’d resisted pregnancy so hard, yet here I was alone in my room, aching for my daughter.

Before she was even born, Penelope and I were attached. Because of the 3D sonograms every other day for about ten weeks, I felt we knew each other. When we first saw one another in the operating room after she was born, her eyes locked mine and I swear she was saying, “It’s OK, Mommy, I’ve got you.”

Jessica Sliwerski and Penelope just born
We have the same expression in this picture. I imagine she’s saying, “It’s OK, Mommy. I’ve got you.” To this day, this picture makes me cry.

The next morning I couldn’t get to Penelope fast enough, begging the nurses to remove her from the isolette and place her on my bare chest where my body heat would warm her and the sound of my beating heart would soothe her. I was discharged from the hospital a day later, watching other smiling mothers leave with their cherubs. My arms held nothing more than my hospital bag.

When the cab door shut, I leaned against Kyle and wept.

As any NICU parent will attest, the waiting is hell. Penelope spent 11 days in NICU, graduating despite weighing a mere three pounds, and as Kyle and I cautiously drove home our tiny miracle, we couldn’t stop smiling. We had conquered the worst.

I found the lump in my breast when Penelope was three months old.

Pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC) is breast cancer diagnosed during pregnancy or very shortly thereafter. It affects one in 3,000 pregnant women — the second most common malignancy affecting pregnancy. The average age of women with PABC is 32 to 38 years; I had just celebrated my 33rd birthday.

What was the happiest time in my life suddenly became the most terrifying. I thought I’d been scared when Penelope wasn’t growing. I thought I’d been scared when she was in NICU. But cancer is a category of fear that has no comparison, made worse by being a brand new mother.

In my twenties, I’d watched my father suffer and die from cancer. My grandfather was in the final throes of cancer (and would die just a few days before my mastectomy). Now here I was, simultaneously contending with the fear of cancer treatment and the fear of not living to see my precious baby — whom I’d only just met — go to kindergarten, graduate from college, become a mother herself. Yet along with those fears, there was also overwhelming relief, because it was me who was sick. Not Kyle, and not Penelope..

When we became pregnant so easily, I was convinced I would miscarry. I didn’t trust my good luck, especially given what I’d seen my friends go through to conceive. I now believe the real reason I was so easily knocked up was because I only had one chance and very little time.

That, and the fact that Penelope needed to save me.

Because Penelope was born a month early, I found my lump earlier. Because she was so small and desperately needed calories, we opted for high-calorie formula over breast milk.

Had I been breastfeeding, I may not have found my lump; even if I had found it, I may have attributed it to a clogged duct, or mastitis, or something else, certainly nothing worth worrying about. The pathology of my tumor revealed itself to be particularly aggressive. But because I found the lump early, the cancer hadn’t yet made it to my lymph nodes. It hadn’t metastasized.

Had Penelope not been growth-restricted, I wouldn’t have been able to hold her after my double mastectomy, when it was too painful to even open the refrigerator. And I needed to hold her more than I needed pain meds. In fact, I awoke from surgery crying, “My baby. Please, I need my baby.” In my hospital bed that night I held Penelope’s pink NICU hat. Stroking the soft yarn with my thumb, I sobbed.

Had Penelope been a normal-sized baby, I wouldn’t have been able to care for her while in the throes of chemotherapy. And I needed to care for her. The distraction of motherhood rescued me from the hell that was chemo. I couldn’t dwell on my own discomfort when there was someone more helpless than myself to take care of. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself when merely looking at Penelope sent a surge of joy stronger than all the designer cancer drugs coursing through my body.

Kyle was my primary caregiver during treatment. He attended countless doctor appointments and every chemo infusion. He emptied my drains after surgery. He sponge bathed me and helped me go to the bathroom. He found me unconscious on the bathroom floor and called the ambulance. He sat with me each time we had to go to the emergency room. He shaved my head. He called me his beautiful bride even though my breasts had been amputated and my hair was gone.

If someone in a restaurant or on the street stared at me just a little too long, he gallantly said, “What the fuck are you looking at?”

But the most important thing he did was convince me to become a mother.

Jessica Sliwerski post mastectomy
My first day home post mastectomy. I couldn’t hold Penelope, so she sat in her stroller beside me. Just being close to her made me feel better.

When I had doctor appointments I knew would be difficult, I brought Penelope with me. She soothed my anxiety and brought joy to other patients. One day while waiting to get an infusion of saline water to hydrate me after a particularly brutal round of chemo, I sat in the waiting room holding Penelope, nestling my nose into the smooth crevice of her neck, inhaling her sweet baby scent.

Jessica Sliwerski and Penelope snuggle buddies
More than six months after finishing chemo, I still need naps to get through the day. Penelope is my snuggle buddy.

“It must be rough having a baby right now,” the woman across from us said, observing my bald head, the chemo infusion bruises patchworking my right arm, and the infant in my lap. “I can’t even imagine…”

“No,” I said. “She saved my life.”

Jessica Sliwerski Kyle Poppy Christmas
Our first family Christmas. Penelope weighs less than our Yorkie in this picture.

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All photos courtesy of Jessica Sliwerski