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Chemotherapy in the Maternity Ward

Friday, April 09, 2021

By Elyse Chambers

The day the nurse told me that I was going to lose my hair there was a fetal doppler strapped around my midsection and a low, steady beep on the heart monitor next to the hospital bed. Earlier that day my husband and I had walked into the maternity ward with our overnight bag and a cooler full of snacks, like most jubilant parents-to-be. Yet, unlike the other residents, we were not there to welcome a new baby into the world.

“You forgot to mention a key side effect,” I said to the nurse, who was holding a sheaf of papers listing ailments ranging from shortness of breath to bleeding gums.

“I assumed you knew about the hair loss,” she said. “I didn’t want to call attention to it.”

I looked up at her glossy, equine hair and tried to picture her bald. Envisioning people suddenly losing their hair had become a habit of mine recently — a sea of smooth, gleaming domes.

“But what is the actual percentage of hair loss? Is it 100%? Does everyone lose their hair?” I asked.

This being my second experience with chemotherapy, I thought of the first round with a kind of wistfulness. I also retained the vain hope that I alone would be spared the side effects of this particular treatment.

“Even if you don’t lose it all, it will become so thin that you will want to either invest in a wig or shave it completely,” the nurse said bluntly. “I’ve heard that a wig can help you feel more comfortable in public.”

After she left, I wheeled my IV stand into the bathroom to stare in the mirror at my mane of blonde hair. It was my favorite physical attribute and I had perfected those tousled, bedhead tresses. Bald seemed like a decidedly bad look for me.

Wheeling myself back into the room, I looked at Andrew sitting in a chair by the window. “You’ll have two baldies in the house,” I said, running a hand over my stomach.

Cancer had made me thin and now that thinness was punctuated by a little pregnant stomach, like an Adam’s apple or an exclamation with a misplaced point. At seven months pregnant, our unborn daughter would be induced six weeks later.

“I’ve always had a thing for Sinead O’Connor.” He smiled back. “High-school Andrew is very into it.”

I laughed and climbed back onto the hospital bed.

Seven months ago, I had a clean bill of health and scheduled an appointment with my OBGYN to review the test results of my hormone levels after receiving five rounds of chemo for Stage IV Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The results showed that my ovaries were shutting down, a natural result of the treatment which can trigger early menopause in women.

“Standard procedure, let’s also get a urine sample today just to make sure we aren’t missing anything,” my doctor said in a charming South African accent.

Her neat, red bob shifted around her square-framed glasses as she handed me the specimen cup. The results took us both by surprise. My ovaries were limping along, and I was pregnant.

Having lost a pregnancy during my first round of chemotherapy, I was overwhelmed and unnerved by the news. I thought my body’s healthy soil was depleting, ill-equipped to sprout new life.

Cancer had made me thin and now that thinness was punctuated by a little pregnant stomach, like an Adam’s apple or an exclamation with a misplaced point.

It was early February, two weeks after finding out I was pregnant, when I felt it: A cherry-tomato-sized lump on my left bicep. In my experience, lumps were rarely harbingers of good news.

I stepped out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel, damp skin smelling faintly of almonds, and walked over to the couch where Andrew was sitting. I held my bicep up for him to see. He looked at my arm for a brief moment and then held my gaze. We were overcome with grief.

Our two-year-old daughter was fast asleep as I tiptoed to her crib, breathing in that sweet, small breath. I relished the peaceful aura of her room, with the whir of white noise and shag rug underfoot. I could hear the clink of ice from the kitchen while Andrew poured himself a glass of something strong and fortifying. I collapsed onto the itchy woolen chair that my mother had given us for the baby’s room and stared vacantly until sleep took me too.

The cherry tomato in my arm soon grew to the size of a hard-boiled egg. It was so close to the surface of the skin I was tempted to pop it out and crack it open.

In addition to the growing fetus, my arm was also coddled, infant-like in warm, dark rooms for ultrasounds and scans. Long speargun needles were used to biopsy the lump while thin flexible needles carefully sampled amniotic fluid. My body was giving life to life and life to death.

The pregnancy hormones propelled my slow-growing cancer into overdrive, cells began to divide rapidly until my lumpy, bumpy body resembled a cheap motel pillow.

Seeking second and third opinions, I became a medical novelty. Doctors were surprised to learn that I was able to get pregnant because of the chemotherapy I had previously received and because Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma typically affects men over the age of sixty. There wasn’t much data in my case. A panel of doctors lined up to examine me, question me, study me. By the time it was decided that a single round of chemotherapy during the pregnancy was necessary to tamp down the symptoms, I felt like a tenuous new exhibit at the zoo.

The room in the maternity ward was spacious. Recessed lighting and white-oak cabinets flanked a wall-mounted television. An oversized window looked out over Monty’s seafood restaurant on the San Francisco Bay.

During my 24-hour stay, I was greeted by a revolving cast of doctors and experts, none of whom seemed well-versed in oncology. They came to observe, but mostly gawk, probing my lumps and asking questions. The University of California, San Francisco Medical Center is a teaching hospital, so the doctors were often flanked by a handful of nervous young doctors-in-training who smiled sympathetically before shuffling out again.

The pregnancy hormones propelled my slow-growing cancer into overdrive, cells began to divide rapidly until my lumpy, bumpy body resembled a cheap motel pillow.

My actual doctor burst in late the next morning, her patent leather brogues tapping across the linoleum.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. “It’s been a long night, I am sure.”

Her Iranian-inflected English was a salve to my ears after an overnight shift with the blonde, bubbly nurse who had a penchant for slogan-emblazoned activewear.

“All things considered, I feel fine. Jittery from the drugs, wildly concerned about the effects of this treatment on the baby, but physically I feel fine.”

“We have gone over this,” she said. “The benefits far outweigh the risks to the fetus, which are minimal.”

It seemed impossible for that to be true, even after the many conversations with the oncologists, and the favorable studies regarding chemotherapy during pregnancy.

But the cancer had spread to the bone in my right knee and the lump in my arm was growing at an alarming rate. The searing pain caused by the diseased knee kept me awake each night and had me in tears during the day, unable to bend down to play with my daughter or kneel beside her bath. I couldn’t drive, walk the dog, sit, stand, or lay down.

For the safety of both mother and child, a round of R-CHOP chemotherapy in month seven, followed by an early delivery, and yet more chemotherapy after birth, was deemed essential.

Later that night, Andrew and I traded jokes to lighten the mood. “Should something happen to me, your Tinder profile would be much less appealing with two kids,” I said.

“One adorable baby and an attractive widowed winemaker? Sold,” he said “But two kids? Too much baggage.”

It was settled; I had to live.


Elyse Chambers is a marketing professional by day, aspiring memoirist by night. Chambers lives in Napa Valley with her winemaker husband and two daughters. When not providing quality control for her husband’s wines, she can be found walking in the vineyard, making the perfect pot of beans, browsing the farmers’ market, and working to reclaim her health. The piece above has been excerpted from a memoir Chambers is currently writing.

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Rebecca de Araujo is currently a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, majoring in illustration with a concentration in surface design.

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