In an instant, what had been a uneventful five months of pregnancy crashed down in a mix of horror and fear.
Kelly Kaur was ready to welcome her third child in just a few months. Up to that point, she and her baby were healthy and happy.
The Greenwood resident was working her regular shift as a nurse when her phone buzzed. Doctors from Community Cancer Center South were on the line. A lump in her left breast, which had been discovered the day before during a routine check-up, was cancerous.
“I lost it. They had to call my family up to come take me home,” she said. “It seemed like my world came down crashing.”
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The next four months were a jumble of chemotherapy treatments and constant monitoring to check the health of the baby. After Kaur gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Nihal, on Feb. 11, 2016, she steeled herself for more chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatment.
Nearly one year later, she has finished her treatment for breast cancer and is in remission. This February is a time for celebration — for her baby’s first birthday, for her surviving cancer and for all of the people who helped ensure both her and her baby’s health.
“When I first found out, I was worried about my kids, worried what was going to happen, if I was even going to get through this,” Kaur said. “But now, I’m going to live. I’m going to live for my kids.”
Big plans are in store for when Nihal turns 1 year old. A three-day celebration of prayer will be conducted at their Sikh temple in Greenwood, and Kaur, her husband Rankoo and their daughters Kajol, 6, and Khushi, 4, gather with their temple community and family members.
Kaur can’t believe how much her son has grown in just one year. The little boy is full of energy and keeps his parents busy exploring the cabinets and niches of their Greenwood home.
“He gets into everything. He rarely plays with toys; he just grabs dishes and pans and plays with those,” Kaur said. “Plus, his two sisters keep him busy.”
Such a happy, healthy baby seemed unimaginable even early last year.
Kaur had gone into the appointment with her obstetrician thinking everything was fine, just another formality in the nine-month march of pregnancy. This was just a regular check-up to monitor the development of her baby.
But in the course of the discussion, Kaur mentioned that following the births of Kajol and Khushi, she had suffered from mastitis, a painful infection of the breast tissue that is associated with breastfeeding. When the physician did a breast exam on her, she found a lump. Kaur was referred to Community Cancer Center South that same day.
Following an ultrasound, Community physicians ordered a biopsy of the lump. They expedited the results, and the next day, Kaur learned that she had Stage III breast cancer. The disease already had spread from her breast to lymph nodes under her arms, as well.
“Breast cancer in pregnancy tends to be diagnosed in more advanced stages, because it’s something that they feel as opposed to seeing on imaging,” said Dr. Erin Zusan, a breast surgeon for Community Health.
Devastation isn’t a strong enough word for her feelings, Kaur said. Her world seemed to be toppling on top of her.
Starting cancer treatment, she was forced to quit her job. Rankoo Kaur had to scale back hours as his own job in order to care for their two daughters, as well as for his wife. The drastic depletion of income left the family scrambling.
But, Kaur credits an immediate network of support that rose up around her to help. She was assigned a nurse navigator, who helped her and Rankoo work with the different medical providers that would come together for treatment.
Family members and fellow members of Greenwood’s Sikh community offered whatever assistance they could provide.
“It took time before I was able to process and deal with what was happening. But I had so much help from the staff here, and my family, and most of all my kids. I knew I had to fight this for them, and for the baby I was pregnant with,” Kaur said.
One of the most important resources was the Community Health Foundation, the fundraising arm of Community Health Network. For the past 40 years, the foundation has provided relief for patients while being treated at Community hospitals.
Aspects of the foundation include suicide prevention and awareness programs, meals for seniors and transportation assistance. The Oncology Patient Assistance Fund provides for cancer patients so they can deal with financial problems that arise during treatment that insurance might not otherwise cover.
“When I sat down and talked with patients, when they talked about their biggest hurdles, it was being able to have gas in the car, to buy nutritious food, to pay for some of their medications,” said Joyce Irwin, president and CEO of the foundation. “That wasn’t something I had thought of until seeing it through their eyes.”
Twice, the Kaur family was given $250 vouchers for groceries that allowed them to stretch their budget when money seemed impossibly tight. The help was immediate when the Kaurs needed it.
“That made a big difference for us. It’s difficult when you’re going through cancer and you have other financial situations, and then you lose one income and half of the other one,” she said. “Instead of worrying about how we were going to come up with this money for groceries, I could focus on other things, like getting better.”
Treating breast cancer often requires an aggressive mix of chemotherapy, surgery and at times radiation. Kaur’s pregnancy, and the vulnerable life growing inside her, required a more careful plan, said Dr. Anuj Agarwala, oncologist for Community Health Network.
All of the different disciplines came together to take a team approach. A high-risk obstetrician, medical oncologist, breast surgeon, radiologist and other physicians came together to present Kaur’s case to Community Health Network’s breast tumor board, a group of medical professionals that work together to chart the best course of treatment.
“You get that multi-disciplinary care, to where you have a team making your plan,” Zusan said.
A less intensive round of chemotherapy was given to Kaur before her baby was born.
“We wanted to coordinate her care so we were sure that the agents we gave were safe during chemotherapy. We did have to make some modifications in terms of the timing of things,” Agarwala said. “Obviously, we had to make sure the approach we took was safe for her and the baby.”
The end of that initial round of chemotherapy coincided with the induced delivery of Nihal, who was born without any complications. The feeling of holding her baby son, after so many months of fear and worry, was exhilarating, she said.
Despite the exhaustion that goes into caring for a newborn, Kaur had renewed energy to overcome this cancer.
Two weeks after giving birth, she was back on course with chemotherapy. She was given stronger drugs that were not safe for the baby while she was pregnant, and prepared for her surgery.
The cancerous lumps in her left breast had to be removed, and after undergoing genetic testing that revealed a mutation in a gene that can increase the risk of breast cancer, Kaur opted for a double mastectomy.
Zusan conducted the surgery in June 2016.
“It can be more challenging recovering, since emotionally she had a new baby at home and she just had surgery and had to do chemo. It’s a little bit different than the usual course of events,” Zusan said. “But knowing that the baby was healthy, that helped her.”
Kaur finished her final chemotherapy sessions Jan. 30. The cancer is in remission, though she will still visit Community Cancer Center South regularly to monitor her situation and ensure cancerous cells don’t come back.
While pregnant women require an altered treatment plan for breast cancer, research has found that they have the same prognosis and survival rate as women diagnosed when they’re not pregnant, Zusan said.
Kaur feels as good as she has in more than two years, a pleasant and emotional development as she prepares to celebrate Nihal’s first year of life.
“It was one of the best days of my life. I feel like I was given another life,” she said. “I did it. With everyone’s help, I made it. There were times I wanted to give up, but with all of the support, I made it.”
How to help
While going through treatment for breast cancer in late 2015 and 2016, Kelly Kaur and her family received help with groceries through the Oncology Patient Assistance Fund.
The fund is a program of the Community Health Foundation, which provides financial support and other assistance to patients at Community Health Network hospitals. Organizers raise money throughout the year, mostly through donations and at a major fundraising event, the Giving Gig, taking place Saturday. (FEB 11) The past two years, the event has raised more than $2.4 million
Though this year’s Giving Gig is sold out, people can still contribute to the foundation.
Donations are being accepted at ecommunity.com/giving-gig.