In December of 2014, my sister, Holly, was diagnosed with a 25-pound cancerous tumor. The tumor, which we later found out was made up of ‘small cell sarcoma,’ was literally engulfing one of her kidneys. She had to undergo surgery to remove both the kidney and the tumor, which in turn created many other dangerous complications. During the initial extensive surgery, a piece of tumor dislodged, causing a pulmonary embolism that traveled up through her heart and into her lungs. She then had to have a lengthy emergency open-heart surgery, during which she had to have two complete blood transfusions. It was very touch-and-go, and we were told that her body had been through so much that she would most likely not survive the night. Hours later, her condition deteriorated further, as she began bleeding internally, and one of her lungs filled with fluid. She was quickly whisked away to have a third, and then a fourth, procedure done to correct both of these issues. With so many traumas continually happening to her body, the next immediate concern was whether she would ever be strong enough to come off of the ventilator. It took five long days of adjusting and re-adjusting the ventilator settings, but, finally, Holly was finally able to breath on her own again. Through the grace of the good Lord, and after 15 excruciating days in the hospital, I am happy to say that she got to come home. It was a true miracle, to say the least!
When Holly regained her strength, she started a very strong inpatient chemotherapy called Doxsurubicin every three weeks, for almost an entire year. It was referred to as the “Red Devil,” as it made her deathly ill, but she never lost her positive attitude. While in the hospital, she even became a role model for other cancer patients by visiting them and giving them positive encouragement. She was proud of all her surgery scars, and didn’t mind showing them off. As a walking miracle, Holly became a “hospital celebrity,” and everyone wanted to meet her.
Once her chemo regimen was completed, the waiting game began to see if the chemotherapy had worked. Thankfully, she was pronounced cancer-free in July of 2015! Unfortunately, due to the type of chemo she had taken, doctors told Holly that she would never be able to have children. Despite that, and through God’s will and plan alone, Holly found out in October of 2015 that she was pregnant. Her doctors were flabbergasted. Everyone was elated, but also scared to death for her and the baby. After all that she had been through, we questioned if her body would be strong enough for the baby to survive without lifelong complications. She waited to tell her family and friends until Thanksgiving, when she believed that she was far enough along for things to be okay…or so we all hoped.
In January of 2016, we found out that Holly’s tumor was back… and this time, it had metastasized. Doctors told her that the likelihood of the baby surviving was almost zero. The baby was growing at a steady rate, and the cancer cells were growing just as rapidly. The question was, which would grow quicker – the baby, or the tumors? After much prolonged deliberation, Holly’s doctors informed her that there was just not enough room in her body to grow a baby alongside her emerging tumors. The only hope for Holly’s survival would be to abort the child and start on chemotherapy as quickly as possible. Holly refused to abort, knowing in her heart that her baby was a gift from God, and asked her medical team to do whatever they could to save the baby–not her.
After weeks of talking and praying fervently, Dr. Paul Wendel, a high-risk pregnancy physician at UAMS, took over Holly’s case. Several meetings between Dr. Wendel, the oncology and urology departments, and the surgical team later, it was decided that if the baby was going to have any chance at all, one of the tumors in Holly’s abdomen had to be removed in order to make room for the baby to continue to grow. The likelihood that the child would survive was, again, very slim, but Holly agreed to go through yet another surgery. It was obviously a very risky procedure for both Holly and the baby, so, before Holly went in, she told Dr. Wendel that if he had to choose between the two of them, she wanted him to save the baby. It was a very long day, but that evening we were able to rejoice in yet another God-granted miracle: Holly and the baby had both survived the procedure.
After surgery, Dr. Wendel was even more determined to do whatever was possible to try to save the baby, as well as Holly. Because of the degree of complications with the pregnancy, a “Dream Team” was developed in order to keep Holly alive long enough to get the baby viable enough to live outside of the womb. Holly’s team of doctors continued to monitor, research, and discuss her very unique situation. Dr. Wendel, along with the rest of the Dream Team, decided that it would be best to start her back on the “Red Devil” in order to shrink the growing tumors and prolong Holly’s life expectancy. There were concerns as to how the chemo would affect the baby, but, without it, the tumors would keep growing, and the surgery would have been for nothing, because Holly and the baby might both die. Holly’s main focus was never on herself–just to get her baby into the world safely! Her attitude stayed positive, and she was certain that both her and the baby would be fine. In the midst of chemo treatment, we found out that the baby was going to be a boy, which gave Holly even more of a reason to fight.
As anticipated, the pregnancy was a very, very difficult one. Not only were the doctors treating a patient with cancer, but a pregnant patient with cancer. Holly was monitored very closely and basically lived in the hospital towards the end of her pregnancy. From about twenty-eight weeks on, it was a day-to-day battle, no one knowing when or if they would have to take the baby. Holly courageously fought day in and day out to be able to hold her baby. She became very weak from the chemo regimen mixed with the dehydration of morning sickness. Her immune system was practically non-existent. She experienced toxicity from the chemo at one point, and was just utterly exhausted. Dr. Wendel worked tirelessly to help get Holly to a point where she would be able to hold her baby in her arms. She never became discouraged during her fight, and always had a smile on her face, a positive attitude, and a tremendous amount of faith.
At thirty-two weeks, Holly spiked a fever, her blood pressure skyrocketed, and her heart rate shot up. Dr. Wendel immediately suggested a C-section, but feared the outcome for both the baby and Holly might not be a very positive one. Luckily, as fast as Holly’s fever spiked, it went away. Determined to have a natural childbirth, Holly was induced, but not without many various fears about of what might arise. On May 11th, 2016, at 9:20AM, however, Conor Jameson Rogers made his debut safely. The birth had no complications, and was absolutely beautiful. Needless to say, there was not a dry eye in the room. He was perfect! Holly had beaten the odds, and delivered a 3 pound, 11 ounce bundle of joy. He was quickly handed off to Holly, for her and Dr. Wendel had succeeded in accomplishing the impossible. He didn’t even have to have oxygen! Holly was holding her baby – the baby that so many wanted her to abort. The baby that everyone feared would be on a ventilator or have a deformity for the rest of his life if he even survived. He was a miracle child. The room was quickly filled with nurses, doctors, specialists, and people that didn’t even know our family personally, but had heard about the amazingly, selfless story of a mother, sickened with cancer, choosing her baby’s life over fighting for her own. Conor lived in the NICU for about 3 months. Knowing how important skin-to-skin contact was, Holly would sit and hold him for hours all day, every day, urging him to grow so that he could come home. She would smile through her pain and nausea from the continued chemotherapy, because he was now her reason to live. She wanted every moment with him, and for him to know her.
Over time, however, Holly’s condition began to worsen. The tumors were continuing to grow, and her pain was becoming unbearable. When Conor was a mere five months old, Holly sadly lost her courageous battle with cancer. Holly was a true inspiration to many, and she left a lasting impression on everyone she came into contact with. There are no words to describe what it felt like to watch my sister’s unselfish act–willingly sacrificing herself in order that her child live. She taught doctors that there is more to healing than earthly medicine. Maybe, someday, the doctors that took care of her can use what they learned during her case to help someone else. We hope that by sharing her story it will give other mothers who have cancer encouragement and hope that miracles really do happen. I am certain that when you have faith in our Lord Jesus, even the most tragic scenarios can be looked at and counted as true blessings.
On behalf of my family, I would like to honor Holly’s memory and celebrate her legacy, Conor, whom she left behind for us, as she so strongly wished to do. He looks more and more like her daily and is as healthy as can be. Today he weighs about sixteen pounds and is crawling everywhere. He loves his baby food and has just recently began to say “DaDa.” We will be celebrating his first birthday this month – a milestone which we didn’t know whether we would make it to a year ago. My family and I are so grateful for the blessings we received from God during this season of our lives where we have felt both His peace and comfort. He let us borrow Holly here on Earth for as long as we could before He called her back home. We will be forever grateful to Him, both for our memories of Holly and the gift of Conor in our lives.