Pregnant with cancer: First-time mom and warrior baby battle back

Lauren Hubert Smoke found herself in a love-hate tug-of-war.

In her own words

“The past month or so I’ve been thinking a lot about what this experience really is. Pregnancy and cancer. I still laugh out loud sometimes, barely believing that this is actually happening. Most of the stuff I put on Facebook is positive. It’s just how I roll. 😉 And a lot of this experience is happy and positive!

I smile every time I feel my baby kick (even when he aims for my bladder, lol). It’s been baby kicks, and hope, and hugs, and care packages, and strength, and baby showers, and kindness and gratitude, and strollers, and belly bump pictures, and pancakes, and silly moments with family and friends, and letting go, and so much love, love, LOVE.

But it’s also been body-consuming sobs that the neighbors must have heard, and falling apart in the shower, and fear that doesn’t go away, and anxiety and despair and jealousy, and so many needles, and hospital gowns, and sleepless nights, and waiting rooms, and screaming out loud at the unfairness of it, and anger and guilt and worry, and an itchy scalp, and long, deep sighs of reluctant acceptance.

… I don’t want to live the rest of my life in fear. I’m going through the best and worst experiences of my life at the same time. I refuse to give the crappy cancer side of this more attention than it deserves. I am on the road to becoming a mom!!”

– Excerpt from Smoke’s CaringBridge journal

She loved the little olive growing inside her that she had dreamed about for so many years, and she hated the other little olive growing in her that threatened those dreams.

Pregnancy wasn’t supposed to be like this, filled with a frightening diagnosis, a lumpectomy to remove the fast-growing tumor from her breast, chemotherapy and worrying, worrying, worrying that somehow her longed-for baby wouldn’t survive it all.

“I kept thinking, what did I do wrong, why is this happening to me? I’m a vegetarian, I do yoga, I’m healthy, I’m active, I’m happy,” says Smoke, best known by thousands of Chicago littles as the beloved children’s entertainer, Miss Lauren. “Why is this happening to me? Has it been all of the cupcakes I’ve been eating?”

Some of the city’s top breast cancer experts simply can’t answer those questions.

Sometimes, they told her, it just happens.

It’s been quite a year for Lauren and husband Ian, who honeymooned in January.

“The craziest year ever,” she corrects.

Lauren, 34, wanted to start trying for a baby right away, knowing that it took friends months and sometimes years to get pregnant. Ian was more cautious but game.

Who knew she’d get pregnant the first try on their honeymoon? she laughs. By the first week of February, the pregnancy test showed positive.

“I was really excited because I had wanted this for such a long time, especially working here (a teacher at Bubbles Academy), I’ve had baby fever for years.”

Mixed with that excitement were the normal worries, of course. Then at six weeks, she felt a marble-sized lump in her breast. She even made Ian check to make sure she wasn’t crazy.

She wasn’t.

On March 12, at the eight-week mark of her pregnancy, she had a biopsy. “Most of the doctors I saw said, `you’re young, you’re healthy, it’s probably just from your pregnancy,’ so I was feeling optimistic.”

The next day, she and Ian saw their baby for the first time. “We were so excited. And then a couple hours after that, I got the call from Northwestern. I could tell as soon as I heard the doctor’s voice that it wasn’t good.”

It was breast cancer.

“So it just went from being the best day to the worst day like that,” Smoke says. “All I could think of, there’s no way I can keep the baby.”

Though she knew she shouldn’t, she turned to Google. When she typed `cancer during pregnancy,’ she thankfully first found success stories and got connected right away to another mom who had been through it already thanks to Hope for Two. She also found the bad side of Googling–statistics and poor survival rates.

At the end of “the worst weekend ever,” Smoke met with her doctor at the University of Chicago and they made a plan for a lumpectomy and node biopsy the following week, followed by chemo and radiation. “She never once mentioned me having to abort the pregnancy.”

At 14 weeks, her baby boy moved. At 15 weeks, she started chemo.

“Every time I have a chemo appointment, I worry. That’s why I love the movement so much because I know he’s OK,” she says.

At every appointment and every other moment in between, Ian is by her side.

“I always hear the first year of marriage is rough and you work things out. He has just blown my mind, he is everything I need him to be even when I didn’t know what that was,” she says.

Pregnancy hormones plus cancer equal a lot of ups and downs, crying spells that turn into outrageous laughter.

“I’m really lucky,” Smoke decides. She’s cried more happy tears than sad.

She’s surrounded by friends and family, and her growing bump keeps her focused on something good and happy. She says her job at Bubbles Academy has been a lifesaver. “You can’t think about cancer when you are in a room full of sweet little toddlers shaking maracas,” she says with a smile.

The plan is to get her little guy–whose name is significant to this journey but won’t be announced until he arrives–to term. So far, he’s a little ahead of schedule in size, she says as she touches her stomach for the 14th time in an hour.

Her last chemo is set for Oct. 12. On Oct. 13 she’ll be 39 weeks and her OB plans to induce, with everyone hoping to avoid a C-section since Smoke’s immune system is so weak.

Four weeks after her son is born, she’ll start radiation to wipe out her fast-growing triple negative breast cancer that comes with a higher rate of reoccurrence.

“I have a baby to focus on. It’s all I want to focus on,” she says.

Yet, at night in bed while she tries not to wake Ian with her crying, the cancer hangs over her. “Is it ever really over? I don’t know why it happened, so I don’t know how to avoid it coming back,” she says.

One of her new friends who had a baby last year and is in remission gave her the perfect analogy to ponder. Cancer is like the story of The Three Little Pigs: You do everything you can to rebuild your house after The Big Bad Wolf blows it down–you do chemo, you think it’s safe–but you never know when he could come back.

A self-confessed cupcakeaholic (funfetti is her fave), she plans to go cold turkey once her baby arrives to keep the wolf at bay, just in case.

Baby Smoke, as people know him through her CaringBridge journal, will come home to a nursery filled with happiness and elephants. Though the elephants are cute, they also represent a bigger meaning: in yoga, the elephant, Ganesha, is the remover of obstacles.

Maybe one day he’ll read her journal, she thinks.

“He doesn’t know it yet; he’s already been through a lot,” she says. “I just hope he always knows he has the strength to overcome any obstacles that come in his way. I hope he always knows how much we love him,” she says.

“I call him my little warrior. I want to tell him he saved my life.”

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