Michelle Lang-Schock has been looking forward to the day she can focus on the baby she’s expecting rather than the cancer she’s fighting.
Michelle and her husband, Harry, had it all planned.
Finish chemotherapy in March.
Deliver their baby in May.
Undergo surgery to have her right breast and ovaries removed and breasts reconstructed in July.
Celebrate the end of her battle against breast cancer with a party in August.
But as Michelle and Harry have come to know all too well, life doesn’t always go as planned.
During an appointment with her oncologist this month, Michelle learned she will need to take a medication for at least five years to reduce the risk of her cancer returning.
To Michelle, those pills will be a daily reminder of a disease she wants to forget.
The following week, a radiation oncologist at Summa Barberton Hospital explained why she should consider radiation treatments after the baby is born to eliminate any hidden cancer cells.
“It’s like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and the tunnel just caved in on us,” Harry said.
Michelle’s days have been filled with medical appointments, tests, treatments and more than a few tears since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, shortly after discovering she was pregnant.
Her journey started when she found what turned out to be a harmless, fatty tumor in her right breast a few months after she and Harry got married. A follow-up appointment with a breast specialist revealed a barely visible dimpling on the other breast that was cancer.
When Michelle celebrated her 42nd birthday in March, the day had extra meaning. Had her cancer not been detected, it likely would have silently grown and spread, fueled by the hormones of her pregnancy.
“If we wouldn’t have found the cancer,” she said, “this would have been my last birthday.”
From the start, the newlyweds agreed to fight her cancer while preserving the life of their unborn child — a baby girl they plan to call Charli, short for Lillian Charlette.
When Charli arrives during a scheduled delivery a few days before Mother’s Day, the unexpected but welcome addition will join a blended family that includes Michelle’s sons, Jacob, 21; and Max, 9; her daughter, Isabella, “Bella,” 7; Harry’s daughter, Alaina, 18; and his son, Trevor, 9.
After having her left breast removed in late October, Michelle underwent six rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks at Barberton Hospital’s Parkview Center. Doctors assured her that the potent drugs would attack her cancer without harming her baby.
With Harry traveling Monday through Friday for his new job as a truck driver, Michelle’s family and friends pitched in to help.
Her mother, Lin Lang Tyler, and aunt Cheri Howard took turns making the trip from Urbana to take her to treatments and stay overnight.
Volunteers from their church, Northside Christian, delivered meals. Loyal friends called and visited to lift her spirits and offer support.
Area Girl Scout troops, her children’s school and complete strangers gave food, gas cards and other donations. Michael and Ellen Batu, parents from Max’s former Cub Scout troop in Cuyahoga Falls, paid for her car to be fixed with the help of Mobile Repair in Wadsworth after learning she couldn’t afford the repair bill.
On the weekends after each of Michelle’s treatments, Harry took over cooking, cleaning and caring for the children as much as possible so she could rest. He wanted to be the perfect husband, to somehow take away her pain.
Michelle could see Harry was tired, stressed and frustrated.
“If you want out, I totally understand,” she told him. “You didn’t sign up for this.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he responded.
He is, after all, his father’s son.
Harry watched his father care for his ailing mother as she faced serious complications from diabetes. When his mother was confined to a hospital bed in their house, his father slept every night on a couch by her side.
His father died six days after his mother from a heart attack. But Harry is convinced it was really a broken heart that killed him.
“I will go to my grave taking care of you and the kids,” he told Michelle.
The fatigue, nausea and other side effects grew progressively worse and lasted longer with each treatment Michelle endured.
Several times, she ended up in the emergency room with contractions. Many days, it took all her energy just to get out of bed to help the kids get ready for school.
On the day of her final treatment in March, Michelle brought along a picture Bella had made for her. In the drawing, Michelle had a big belly and thin, spiky hair.
“Cancer is very hard it hrts,” Bella wrote. “Aad it is sad. It can take alot of cemo. It is bad for you.”
Michelle won’t miss the chemo — but she will miss the staff she has come to know. As she left, she promised to return with Charli for a visit.
In Michelle’s mind, the last remaining obstacle was surgery this summer to remove her ovaries and right breast and to reconstruct her breasts.
All that changed during a consultation with a radiation oncologist at the urging of her cancer doctor.
Harry took the morning off so he could go with Michelle to the appointment. Both were opposed to radiation, which they feared would prolong her battle with side effects and cause a more difficult breast reconstruction.
Dr. William Demas, medical director of radiation oncology at Barberton Hospital, explained that cancer was found not only in three lymph nodes but also in tissue outside the lymph nodes.
“That means you can consider the whole area being contaminated,” he said.
Michelle fought back tears as Harry clutched her hand.
She will need a PET scan after delivering her baby to make sure the cancer isn’t anywhere else in her body. Assuming nothing changes, Demas said, he would recommend she consider radiation treatments five days a week for five or six weeks.
“More people live longer when you have the radiation,” he told her.
Michelle rested her hands on her head and listened to the doctor review the possible risks from radiation treatments: burns on the skin, fluid retention and swelling, fatigue, weakened ribs, scarring on the lungs and, rarely, damage to the heart.
After the disappointing news, Michelle and Harry were ready for something to celebrate.
Several days later, dozens of family members and friends gathered at their home in Wadsworth for a cookout and baby shower.
Michelle dressed for the occasion with a flowery dress and a flowing silk scarf around her head to cover the wispy hair that is starting to grow back. (She shaved her hair off in December when it started to fall out from chemo.)
As they opened gifts together, the couple joked about Harry’s aversion to baby hats and headbands with big bows or oversized flowers. Several of the shower attendees made sure to include those items among their gifts at Michelle’s request.
“Headbands with big bows!” Michelle said, waving the gift at Harry.
“We’ll talk about it,” he said, laughing.
They received dozens of gifts for Charli — everything from a bassinet and baby bathtub to frilly pink outfits and Pampers. Among the presents was a purse with the word “Hope” for Michelle, expectant mom and breast cancer survivor.
Michelle looked around at her family and friends. Tears filled her eyes.
“Everyone who is in this room has supported me,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “You guys have just really helped me through all of this, and I really appreciate it.
“… If I could hug you every day, I would.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.