PHOTO COURTESY OF JEN KRAEMER-SMITH
Sunlight streamed through my family room. My eyes met my husband’s as our toddler boys sent another Thomas train roaring down the wooden track. I could tell by his smile that he knew before I even told him—I was carrying a little playmate for our boys.
Days later, I found a lump in my breast. Knowing it was too early to make an appointment, I called my obstetrician anyway. My doctor assured me the lump was probably just due to breast tissue changes associated with pregnancy, but sent me for a sonogram to be sure. I relayed my happy news to the technician, but he didn’t share my mood. The look on his face made my heart pound with worry.
I was referred to a local breast surgeon, who made me wait two weeks to see her. “I’ll send you for a biopsy,” she said robotically, “but I can already see from this film that it’s breast cancer.” She then coldly flipped over a generic handout and sketched out our options. My husband and I left her office, sat in the parking lot and cried.
A NEW BEGINNING
We found a new surgeon that specialized in the care of younger women. She'd dealt with three pregnant patients that year alone. While I underwent single mastectomy surgery, the surgical team wasn’t able to monitor my child. A young resident found me in recovery. Tears welled up in my eyes when I finally heard the fetal heartbeat. “I’m sure you’re in a lot of pain,” he said kindly. He had no idea that I was crying tears of joy knowing my baby survived.
Because I was 38 when I was diagnosed in 2012, the doctors elected for an aggressive treatment plan. I was able to undergo chemotherapy while pregnant without harming my child. I did a course of radiation after the baby was born.
My daughter was a gift. We helped each other. I protected her little life growing inside me, and she gave me something positive to focus on. I was so grateful she was born healthy and happy.
For almost two years after she was born, I was cancer free. I immersed myself in motherhood, loving the bedtime stories, school birthday parties and LEGO creations. But in 2014, a trip to the ER for suspected kidney stones revealed that the cancer had returned in my spine. I had immediate emergency surgery followed by more radiation. I was lucky enough to be admitted into a study, which gave me hope and helped me move forward.
PHOTO BY VAUNE TRACHTMAN
TACKLING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS
Now, I’m grateful for each day. But years after my initial diagnosis, I’m still learning how to handle the emotional and physical challenges of having cancer. That’s why I created The Cancer Conversation with my friend, Andrea Delbanco. She’s the type of friend who’s always there for you. As coworkers and moms of young kids, we lived similar lives and shared so much over the years. But after I was diagnosed with cancer, we had trouble communicating. It wasn’t for lack of trying. My struggle was learning how to cope with cancer. Hers was not knowing how to help. To serve both of our needs, we had an idea to write down the questions we had, then talk through and tackle them together one at a time. The cards cover a range of topics from parenting, fertility and sexuality to all stages of planning. Our combined experiences and research made us realize the universality of our feelings.
The Cancer Conversation began with a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a set of talking prompt cards that gives people a point of entry into tough topics. Looking at the cards with loved ones opens a dialogue. It offers permission for both the patient to ask for help and a loved one to offer it.
When we hear from patients we’ve helped, I feel so proud. It’s a legacy for my children. I want to see them grow up to be good people. And I want to laugh with my husband. I recently packed those Thomas trains away in the attic. I hope to someday slide them down the track with my grandchildren.
Jennifer Kraemer-Smith is a mom of three from Mercer County. To learn more about the Cancer Conversation, go to thecancerconversation.com.