Breast Cancer Survival Guide, Part 3: Life, Interrupted
"I was 33 weeks pregnant..."
Nathaniel saved her life.
That's what Regina Stuve believes and what her doctor says is entirely possible. Regina was seven months pregnant with Nate when she found a lump in her left breast while putting on sunscreen. She was going for the last boat ride of the summer, her Fendi sunglasses and a straw cowboy hat firmly in place. It was September 4, 2006, Labor Day.
"Don't worry," people said. "You're pregnant; your breasts get lumpy."
Up till then she'd had the kind of life where everything did turn out to be fine. She was a 36-year-old publicist for Universal Music Group Nashville, in Tennessee, married for seven years to Ron Stuve, 45, vice president of artists and repertoire at BMG Music Publishing. They had a chocolate Labrador, Lucy, and lived in a 1940s stone Tudor house 10 minutes from her job. Regina worked with country music stars like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and Josh Turner. She had a personal trainer, ate well and had never been seriously sick.
An ultrasound on September 27 showed something. You have an 80 percent chance it's nothing, her doctor told her, but he did a biopsy that same day, just to be sure.
On October 2, Regina got the call at work. She had breast cancer. Her world stopped. Although some researchers believe some treatments can be safe, she resisted the idea of having chemotherapy while she was still pregnant. "I literally put my fingers in my ears, saying 'lalala,' when the doctor tried to talk to me about it," she said.
The next day her gynecologist told her Nate was big enough for her to have induced labor. The following morning, now 34 weeks into the pregnancy, Nate was born, at 5 pounds, 12 ounces.
Nine days later, with Nate still in the hospital for monitoring, doctors removed Regina's breast and with it an aggressive (stage-2) cancer that had not yet spread to the lymph nodes. Because it was hormone positive, her pregnancy hormones may indeed have made it show up faster.
The surgery was followed by five months of exhausting chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation. All that, plus a newborn, meant Regina needed help with everything. Her mother, Brenda Stephens, moved in for a time to tend to Regina. When Regina didn't have enough energy to wash her face, her mom washed it for her and rubbed cream into her dry skin. Ron calls Brenda "the most valuable player in all this." Meanwhile, Ron tended to Nate.
The country music world circled the family. Stars and execs celebrated Nate's birth, brought in food during the long recovery, and sent flowers, gifts, and many e-mails of concern -- including one sent by Reba McEntire, who also paid for Regina's two wigs and gave her a personalized quilt for Nate's nursery. "The warm embrace that I feel from my friends in the music industry continues to lift my spirit and gives me strength," Regina wrote in her journal in November.
The part that hit her hardest emotionally was losing her long blond hair. It was even harder than not breastfeeding, since she could hold Nate close to bottle-feed him. Once, outside a market in Florida where the family vacationed this June after her last radiation treatment, a little boy looked up at the person in the big straw hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirt and said, "Is that a lady, Mommy?" Regina is not a crier, but she cried about this. A hair/makeup artist friend made hair extensions on strips that Regina could Velcro into her hats.
Regina's hair has grown to half an inch now. She and Ron joke that the whole family has the same hairstyle, Nate included. Because her cancer was both hormone and HER2 positive, she'll take Herceptin (for HER2) until February 2008 and tamoxifen (to deal with hormones) for five years. The combination of the two drugs is designed to help lower the risk of recurrence, according to her oncologist, David Johnson, MD, director of the division of hematology/oncology at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. She plans to have breast reconstruction surgery after Christmas.
Regina went back to work in July. Her boss sent her flowers, and her coworkers told her she didn't look sick at all.
And on October 4, the boy who saved his mother's life turns a year old.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2007.