Cancer

29 March 2016

Mom delays chemo to protect 'saviour' baby

A pregnant American woman is avoiding treatment for aggressive brain cancer to save the baby she says saved her life.

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Kim Vaillancourt from Buffalo, New York was 20 weeks pregnant when she and her husband Phil adopted three sisters after three years of fostering them. But on Christmas Day 2015, two days hours after the joyful occasion, Kim began suffering from excruciating headaches which turned out to be tumours on the left frontal lobe of her brain and brain stem.

'Heaven-sent' pregnancy

Kim was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Were it not for concern for the boy she's carrying, she and her husband said it was a life-saving trip she would not have made.

They believe the unexpected pregnancy was heaven-sent.

Now, to give the baby they've named Wyatt Eli the same chance he gave her, Kim is postponing the chemotherapy and radiation that are her best hope against the cancer but would threaten her developing child.

"She's going to do what she can to save the baby's life and give it the healthiest life possible," Phil Vaillancourt said.

The couple and their own 11- and 12-year-old children had spent the day of 23 December in Erie County Family Court for an adoption ceremony that made three sisters – aged 6, 7 and 10 – the couple had been fostering permanent members of their family.

With five kids on break from school, Kim wouldn't normally have made a fuss about feeling ill.

ReadCancer treatment harmless to unborn babies

"I would have just thought I had a headache and the flu and I would have stayed in bed," the 36-year-old mother said. But she worried that being unable to keep food down was keeping the baby from getting the nourishment he needed and headed to the hospital to be checked.

Joyful adoption

Soon she would be rushed into surgery to remove two tumours that doctors said could have killed her. One had grown on the front of her brain. The other was dangerously close to her brain stem in the back.

Holding hands on the couch in their suburban Buffalo living room, Kim and Phil lean on each other as they describe with calm acceptance the abrupt turn their life took between the joyful adoption and the devastating diagnosis a few days later. 

Gliobastoma, they learned, is characterised by fast-growing tumours known to reappear within eight to 12 weeks. With April 25 the target delivery date, Kim has been undergoing MRIs every two weeks to check for any signs of new activity.

"We're praying a lot and trusting God through these next few weeks to keep these scans clean," Phil Vaillancourt said.

It's something the health-conscious Kim, with her focus on vitamins and nutrition, would never have imagined. She laughs while describing her longstanding practice of texting as far away from her body as her arms will allow to avoid cancer risks. She doesn't even want to take a chance with microwaves and has kept hers in the garage for the last 10 years.

Read: New guidelines may miss cancer in women

"When we need it, we press it and close the door real fast, and we use it about once a year," she said.

It's strange, she said, to now look for healing in chemicals and radiation. Unwilling to risk the baby's health, the plan is to begin treatment about two weeks after his birth, hoping all the while the tumours don't reappear before then.

Chemotherapy risk to baby

In the meantime, they will start interviewing nannies to help care for the newborn and the rest of the children, among them 7-year-old Josie, who was born without arms and legs. Phil's leave from his maintenance job with the town of Tonawanda is coming to an end.

"Just taking one day at a time," Phil said. "Even looking too far into the future, you just get caught up in what it can look like. Why even do that?"

Though relatively rare, glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. It affects about 17,000 adults in the United States every year, but is uncommon during pregnancy, said Dr Robert Fenstermaker, chair of neurosurgery at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.

Read: Screening for cancer in Women

Early in a pregnancy, a woman might be advised to end the pregnancy in favour of aggressive treatment, he said. Women further along have undergone chemotherapy but not without risk to the baby.

Christian faith

"It's a tough cancer," said Fenstermaker, who has developed a vaccine therapy for glioblastoma that is now in clinical trials.

The Vaillancourts have found strength from their big and close families and in the prayers that have flowed in as word of the family's fight has spread.

"People have wrapped their hearts around this family," childhood friend Jenna Koch said, describing a GoFundMe campaign and a host of benefits and fundraisers planned over the next few weeks.

With treatment, doctors say patients with the serious grade of glioblastoma afflicting Kim have a median survival rate of about 14 months. But the Vaillancourts are holding onto their Christian faith.

"I hope to fight this off for years and years to come," Kim said. "I hope to be sitting here in 30 years saying how I beat this."

Said Phil: "We definitely believe in miracles." 

Read more: 

Types of cancer 

Diagnosing cancer 

Preventing cancer

AP

 

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