I rise, endure, thrive: How motherhood empowers me in the same way surviving cancer has

  •  5 min

Heather believed she wouldn't be able to have children after St. Jude helped her survive leukemia when she was 17 years old. Now, six years later, she tells of her journey through pregnancy and her first couple of months of motherhood as she prepares to celebrate her first Mother's Day.

Heather Zapien

I wasn’t always a night person. But these days, 3 a.m. is my favorite time. It’s when my newborn son wakes up to nurse. I feed him. We rock and sway together. I sing to him and he listens, drowsy-warm in my arms. 

Just my baby and me: It’s how I like it. It’s all I’ve ever wanted — to be a mother.

I was worried it wouldn’t happen.

Six years ago, I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). It’s a rare form of leukemia but prevalent among Hispanics, which I am. It’s also usually found among 8- to 10-year-olds, which I wasn’t. I was 17.

I was on the front line in the marching band in my high school. Sometimes, we practiced twice a day, two hours each time. I thought that explained why I was so tired I fell asleep in class. But it didn’t explain the spontaneous nose bleeds or the bruising I started noticing all over my stomach.    

I didn’t like seeing doctors, but I reluctantly told my mom we needed to go to the hospital. I felt weak and my bruised, pale body was worrying me. I got my diagnosis at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on February 28, 2015.

Heather Zapien

On the day they told me I had cancer, I was thinking about applying for colleges and wringing my hands about financial aid and the ACT college entrance exam I had to take the next day. To have to suddenly stop and wonder about whether I would live or be well enough to do those things was crazy. And frightening.

Through it all, I clung to my mother. She could read me, the way people read books. She could tell how I was feeling — anxious or frustrated or sad — and always knew what to say to make it better. She’s more than my mother; she’s my best friend.

I think that’s why it was so important to me to become a mother. I wanted to be a source of strength, a beacon for someone, the way she was for me.

I tried for five years to have a baby, but it wasn’t happening. And honestly I lost hope. I told myself, it’s fine, I’ll adopt. I knew my chances of getting pregnant weren’t great. After eight months of treatment, they told me infertility is sometimes a side effect of chemotherapy.

But then last June, I had a feeling it finally happened. I bought a test from the dollar store and there was a faint second line showing a positive pregnancy. I didn’t believe it. Cheap test, I thought. But the two other tests I took after confirmed it. I had a hard time coming to terms with the possibility that I was going to be a mother. After all these years, I couldn’t believe that it was actually, finally happening. I felt happiness. And panic. 

I had to find the right doctor to take care of me through pregnancy. I was so lost and didn't know what to do or where to turn. At St. Jude, they take care of you completely. If I needed help socially or emotionally there were child life specialists there to help me understand what I was going through. And of course they took care of me physically, with all the side effects that come along with cancer and chemotherapy. Being off that campus, looking for a doctor who knew me and the unique journey my body has taken, felt like a gamble. It took patience and my big sister's help, but I finally found the right doctor.

Being pregnant during a pandemic was surreal. I was having a baby at a time the world was paralyzed by a virus it was struggling to understand and contain. Children like my 6-year-old nephew Pepe learned words like lockdown and social distancing, which is such an unnatural concept for kids. All they want is to be close. When they talk and play they lean in with faces and hands. Watching all this unfold as you’re growing life inside you, you wonder if it’s right to bring a baby into a world like this?

Heather Zapien

But then I realized, actually, a time like this, is perfect for my baby. Surviving cancer gave me a sense of duty, a chance to change the world. Being a mother would help me do that. I will raise a good child and put him out into the world to be a source of light and goodness, leading with kindness and tolerance. Thinking that way, helped me know I was ready for this.

Time moves strangely through pregnancy. The first eight months flew past like a blur, but oh my, those last two weeks groaned on. I was achy, swollen and distended. During visits and scans, the doctors said he was measuring up to be a big baby, probably 10 pounds. I was so over carrying him. I just wanted to see his sweet face.

I was induced on Feb. 28. I was so busy preparing for my son I didn’t realize it was also the six-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Six years ago on that same day, I’d heard news that made me fear for my life. And now, here I was, not only alive and cancer-free, but giving birth to new life.

As my labor progressed, the baby’s heart rate started dropping, so doctors performed an emergency C-section. I felt pressure and a tug at my belly, and just moments later, heard his piercing cry. I named him Micah for “one who is like God.”

I spent the early days of motherhood just staring at my baby. They tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, but I can’t. I don’t want to miss a moment. I take too many pictures of him. In one of my favorites, Micah is smiling in his sleep and in another, grimacing in his car seat.

I am now two months into motherhood and overwhelmed in intense and beautiful ways. Being a new mother is testing me in some of the same ways cancer had. My body is sore. I am emotional and vulnerable. I am sleep deprived. And yet this journey leaves me feeling powerful, too. I can run on less than three hours of sleep and still summon the strength to nourish, console and nurture my baby. I know his call no matter where I am and he knows my voice, my smell, my touch.

I feel both exhausted and empowered. Can both those things co-exist? They can for me. Cancer showed me that.

Motherhood, like surviving cancer, is teaching me who I am, how I cope, how I rise and endure and thrive. In time, I will teach Micah these lessons, too.

Heather Zapien

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