Dana Drouin is justifiably proud of her photo albums. In one a trip to the shore is carefully documented -- snapshots show a pair of cheerful toddlers splashing in the surf, a serious older boy digging in the sand, a gang of adults hanging around a beach house, grinning. Another catalogs a trip to Disney World, while a third testifies to the hectic but happy life Dana shares with her husband, Shawn, their three children -- Ryan, 12, and twins Sydni and Aidan, 5 -- and their dog, J.J. "This is from last year," Dana says, pointing to a shot of Shawn and Sydni at a tearoom near their home in Blackwood, New Jersey. In the photo Shawn, who's 6-foot-4 and built like a linebacker, sits delicately on a wrought-iron chair. Tenderly, he leans toward a beaming Sydni, dressed in her Christmas best, offering her a tiny tea cake. Dana, who took the photograph, remembers the occasion with bittersweet fondness; for the Drouins, high tea with their daughter at Christmas is more than just a holiday treat. Three and a half years ago Dana was diagnosed with stage IV terminal cancer; the tea party is a special ritual she'll share for as long as she can. After she's gone, Shawn and Sydni will celebrate alone.
In the summer of 2003 things were finally coming together for the Drouins. They'd spent years trying to have another baby, and finally -- to 6-year-old Ryan's delight -- conceived the twins through in vitro fertilization. They'd survived the serious complications that sent Dana to the hospital several times during her pregnancy, and she'd weathered two whole trimesters of bed rest. They'd even managed to move to a bigger house after the twins were born and had taken out a second mortgage to cover their anticipated extra expenses (Dana planned to return to her job as a certified medical assistant when the twins turned 2). In her new home, Dana felt she could finally relax. "Life had certainly thrown us a few curveballs, but now I felt that all our dreams were within reach," she remembers. And then, when the babies were 9 months old, her back began to hurt.
At three separate visits over the course of an entire year, her doctor told her not to worry -- chances were she'd pulled a muscle lifting the twins. So the pain came and went, until one day it became so intense that Dana could barely breathe and had to race to the doctor again. Thinking that she had kidney stones, her doctor ordered a CT scan and sent her to a urologist. The urologist told Dana she didn't have kidney stones, but that she needed to go back to her primary care physician right away because she had lesions on her kidney, spine, and liver. "Right then I knew I had cancer," Dana says.
The oncologist she was later sent to was baffled. Dana's blood work came back without any of the usual markers for cancer, but an MRI showed a massive tumor on one of Dana's vertebrae, which a biopsy confirmed to be malignant. "Then I had a PET scan, which lit up like a Christmas tree," Dana says. The scan showed more tumors on her spine, on her right shoulder, throughout her liver, and in her kidneys. She was 31 years old.