In the oncologist's office Shawn's eyes filled with tears when they heard the news. The prognosis was grim: Dana's cancer had already metastasized so far that it was impossible to tell where it had originated. Kidney cancer meant she could be dead in six months, Dana remembers being told; breast cancer might give her two years. (Although her breasts were cancer free, the pattern of her metastases suggested breast cancer -- which typically spreads to the liver, bones, and lungs -- as a possibility.) Dana, stunned, felt both anger and disbelief. "I kept thinking, 'I've got three little kids. I have to be here for them. This can't happen.'" Because the tumors on her vertebrae were so close to her spinal cord they were inoperable; the surgery could paralyze Dana from the neck down. Aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment were her only options.
At first the sheer physical agony of her treatments eclipsed everything. Taking care of 21-month-old twins and an 8-year-old is challenging for anyone: For Dana, whose regimen began with 10 radiation treatments in 12 days and three different kinds of chemo, followed by white-blood-cell-boosting shots that made her cancer-riddled bones ache so badly that even a hug from her kids was intolerable, it proved nearly impossible. Shawn took as much unpaid leave from his job at Staples as they could afford, while Dana's friends and family helped when they could. Still, there were plenty of days when she found herself alone with the kids, weak, sick, scared, and in terrible pain.
"Everyone fusses over you when you first get sick, but after a few months the novelty wears off, and you're forgotten," Dana remembers. Steroids caused her weight to balloon, which added to her difficulties; she wept the day her thick hair came out in clumps in the shower.
To make things worse, the family's financial situation was becoming desperate. For Dana to return to work was now out of the question, and her medical expenses were snowballing. Yet through it all Dana's devotion to her kids remained unwavering. Terribly nauseated from the chemo, she still managed to change diapers and fix lunches, and when the kids got colds or fevers and needed hugs from their mom, Dana was there -- though with her compromised immune system she'd always end up sicker than they were.
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