“Nothing stopped the feeling that I was choking or drowning. I couldn’t breathe.” In her eighth month of pregnancy, first-time mother-to-be and Odenton resident Jessi Collins was told the shortness of breath she was experiencing was a common pregnancy symptom.
But it kept getting worse. “I couldn’t sit upright, lay on my side, sleep, drive or even stand up for very long without feeling like my oxygen supply was being cut off completely,” Jessi explains. “Going up stairs felt like running a marathon. I was constantly gasping for air.”
For more than two months, Jessi struggled through painful days and sleepless nights. Feeling exhausted, frustrated and helpless, Jessi visited her primary care doctor, who quickly sent her to the emergency room at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
That’s where she learned the real cause of months of strained breathing was not typical pregnancy symptoms, but a massive tumor near her lungs.
Thoracic surgeon Stephen Cattaneo, MD, delivered the official diagnosis to Jessi, her husband, Dan, and her parents: Jessi had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer in the lymph nodes. “It felt very quiet in that moment,” Jessi recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘This cannot be happening. I am 31 years old and 31 weeks pregnant. How can this be?’ It was very surreal. There were times when I was furious and said to myself, ‘This just isn’t fair.’”
A team approach
Processing the joy of a new life on the way while having thoughts of losing her own, Jessi did the only thing she could do: put her faith in the hands of her doctors.
Even before Jessi heard the news of her diagnosis, her “miracle team,” as she refers to them, was already assembling. Dr. Cattaneo; oncologist Ravin Garg, MD; obstetric hospitalist Joe Morris, MD; and maternal fetal medicine specialist William Sweeney, MD, began taking action.
Though each of these doctors focuses on one of two very different conditions, cancer or pregnancy, they all spent many hours meeting to fuse their areas of expertise together, considering all aspects of Jessi and her baby’s health.
“Working as a team allows us to see the whole picture and the whole person — in this case, whole two persons. It’s the art of what we do,” says Dr. Cattaneo.
“Our challenge was devising a treatment plan that would produce quick results and, at the same time, be safe for two patients: mother and baby,” Dr. Garg explains. “Like a football team, we had to work together and rely on each other’s expertise in this complex situation. This was a very aggressive tumor, so time was of the essence.”
With Jessi’s due date only six weeks out, her doctors started her on chemotherapy right away. While pregnant, Jessi went through two rounds of chemo. “The level of care and true concern shown for my wellbeing and my baby was truly amazing,” says Jessi. “But trying to figure out chemo and having a baby; those worlds should never collide for anybody.”
Happiness and fear
On April 15, 2015, Jessi gave birth to her son, Wesley. Thrilled and relieved to have a healthy son, Jessi was also very aware that her cancer battle was not over. Jessi was exhausted from chemo treatments. Now, as a brand-new mother, she continued with six more rounds of chemo.
From April to August 2015, Jessi was on a 21-day chemotherapy cycle. She would have four days of at-home chemo using a portable pump, visiting the Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Cancer Institute for a refill and evaluation daily. On the fifth day, she would have an eight-hour infusion at the center. Then two weeks later, she would do it all again — and again. The process was draining, both physically and emotionally.
“I had to make a conscious decision to feel hopeful,” explains Jessi. But she didn’t have to look too far to find that hope. “Wes kept me busy and kept me company,” she says. “He forced me to get out of bed in the morning because I knew that somebody needed me. He was the best distraction possible from the cancer treatments. Had he not been around, it would have been so much grimmer and darker.”
A new chapter
Exactly four months after giving birth to Wesley, Jessi went to the DeCesaris Cancer Institute for the last time. As the nurses started the IV for her final cancer treatment, Jessi held her healthy, newborn son. Looking at him, she was reminded of his role in getting her to this day. “He helped me get to the bottom of this issue. He helped discover the cancer,” she says.
Jessi sees AAMC as a place of hope, care and comfort. “My miracle team got me to where I am today: cancer-free and a grateful mom, wife and daughter,” says Jessi. “I wouldn’t want to be cared for anywhere else.”
As is the tradition in AAMC’s Infusion Therapy Center, Jessi’s last day of treatment included ringing a bell to mark the end of her cancer treatment and a farewell song from the staff. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude,” she says. “They told me, ‘We love you, but we don’t want to see you anymore!’ Other than the day Wesley was born, it was the best day of my life.”