Learning that you have cancer is one of the scariest shocks you can get, but learning that you have cancer when you’re pregnant brings the diagnosis to a level of unimaginable few people can fathom.
One mom in Missouri got exactly that news, and not long after, she had to make a choice: risk her baby’s life by getting her stage 4 melanoma treated, or risk her own to try to bring her pregnancy to a viable stage. Cara Walters Combs chose the latter, deciding to forgo the treatment she needed to give her child a chance at life. It would be her last act. Her baby, weighing just 2 pounds, was born on Dec. 5, and Combs passed away Dec. 8.
In a public Facebook post last month, Combs bravely announced her diagnosis and pregnancy in tandem and the plans for her treatment:
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Few of us can imagine ourselves being faced with such a decision. A cancer diagnosis while pregnant can turn what should be a joyful and exciting time into a confusing, bittersweet experience. It’s an exceedingly rare occurrence — according to The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, it occurs in only 0.02 to 0.1 percent of pregnancies annually — and malignant melanomas are even rarer. The most common cancer diagnosis during pregnancy is breast cancer, followed by cervical and thyroid cancer. Malignant melanomas are so far down the list that they register as only a blip. A mere 0.0014 percent of pregnant women are diagnosed with the disease each year.
The knowledge that Combs’ cancer had a survival rate of only 15 percent must have made the decision even more complicated. It’s likely Combs knew her life might end soon no matter what she chose to do, and she took the most selfless route available to her and her family: giving her child a fighting chance at life and health. Her own survival rate was extremely low, but by delaying her treatment, her child’s survival rate skyrocketed. At week 28 of a pregnancy, the baby’s chance of surviving outside the womb leaps to 90 percent. Combs’ baby, Shaylin, needed that chance. In the days since her delivery, she’s been gradually improving, even having her breathing tube removed as she grows stronger:
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Complicating the matter further is the fact that while most cancers don’t affect the developing fetus, there is a chance that melanoma can if it metastasizes and spreads to the placenta. Combs was truly in a race against time, her illness and her own body.
It seems like a truly impossible dilemma, but when it comes right down to it, most mothers would happily lay down their lives for their child’s life. Usually we speak about it in hypotheticals, loose rhetoric that allows us to be objectively brave while we’re not in danger, unlike Combs. It’s impossible to fully understand how absolutely heartbreaking it must have been to weigh two lives against each other, speaking in statistics and probable outcomes at a time when expectant mothers are typically talking about far more lighthearted things.
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Combs’ story is not one of resignation; she had planned on her and her child pulling through to the other side together and expected that it would be very difficult, saying in her post: “We will both be fighting for our lives, and I feel incredibly guiltily [sic] about that.” In the meantime, she had to make a logical decision that would give her child the best shot at survival, even if that meant her struggle would be harder. That is love. It is a sacrifice so many of us have the luxury of not even considering.
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