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An Unexpected Bond: Motherhood and Cancer

Sydney had just given birth when she started experiencing strange symptoms. First rib pain, then back pain that wouldn't let up, which disabled her from picking up her three-month-old daughter. She saw an orthopedic specialist who advised her to take some ibuprofen, but something told Sydney that wasn't going to do the trick. After seeking additional medical advice, Sydney soon learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and required immediate and aggressive treatment.

As a new mom, Sydney formed an immediate connection with her treating physician, Kathryn Hudson, M.D., of Texas Oncology-Austin Central, who was an expectant mother herself. Whether it was a mother's intuition or the bond that motherhood brings, Sydney knew she was in good hands. She credits Dr. Hudson with saving her life and giving her the chance to be the mother she always wanted to be. Learn more about Sydney, Dr. Hudson, and the amazing cancer care team at Texas Oncology.

Transcript

Voiceover: You sure learn a lot about yourself while fighting cancer.

Sydney Townsend: I used to be scared to show what seemed like a weakness, but I'm like, forged in steel now, and it's a river of tears and pain that got me here, but it is ok to feel those feelings.

Voiceover: Hi, and welcome to "Right Here", a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family is a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, go to TexasOncology.com, I'm Ted Canova.

(Music break)

Ted Canova: Picture a young woman, married, with a newborn, and living in Austin.

Sydney Townsend: Hi, I'm Sydney Townsend.

Ted Canova: Sydney wasn't yet 40 when she felt something just wasn't right.

Sydney Townsend: It started off as having pain in one rib, then another rib, then one part of my back, then another part of my back, and I thought, "That's just part of being a new mom", you know your, your joints are loose, and something, you know, I didn't think it was a big deal. So, I called to make an appointment with an orthopedic guy, got in, and he said "Eh, take some Advil, you'll be alright," and I thought, "No, I can't even lift an eight-pound baby, something's wrong, I need more support than Advil."

(Sounds of food sizzling in back)

Sydney Townsend: Ooh, that looks fun. What's in there?

Baby, excitedly: Bubbles!

Sydney Townsend: Bubbles?

(Fade out of conversation with her baby, cut back to interview)

Ted Canova: What was in your mind that thought "You know, no, I'm not going to just take that passive approach"?

Sydney Townsend: I couldn't lift my eight-pound baby, so it was not really a choice. Maybe at any other time in my life, I would've said "Ok" and worked around it, but when you've got a newborn infant, you have to be able to care for your child. I didn't think anything big was wrong, I thought I just needed maybe physical therapy, or a pain injection, I didn't think that it was anything as serious as it turned out to be.

Ted Canova: So then you took the next step and, what happened?

Sydney Townsend: I knew that there were specialists in physical medicine and rehabilitation, so I went there, and I actually saw a resident, and she really listened to me, she slowed down, she took a thorough history, asked me a lot of questions, really examined me much more deeply than the other doctor had. She said, "I think something is really going on with you, and I'd like you to get some imaging done today."

Ted Canova: Today? Did that kind of shock you, the urgency?

Sydney Townsend: You know, at that time I thought, "Oh great, they're going to help me solve this little problem I have, so I'm so pleased that they're so on it," and then I went and got the imaging…

(Cut to Sydney talking to her baby)

Sydney Townsend: Are you all buckled in?

Baby: Yeah.

Sydney Townsend: All set?

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: And, I had just had the baby…

(Cut back to Sydney speaking to her baby)

Sydney Townsend: You know my job is to keep you safe? That's right.

Baby: Why does have to wait?

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: This was my second week back to work after maternity leave, and before I even got back to my desk from the imaging, the doctor called me, and she said, "Something's really wrong, you need to get blood tests today, and you need to see a hematologist tomorrow."

Ted Canova: What word came to your mind when you heard that?

Sydney Townsend: ;"Oh shit"…"Oh shit"….This is bad news. Half my body said that, and half said, "Clearly there's a mix-up."

Ted Canova: Mix-up or not, Sydney landed in the office of a compassionate doctor at Texas Oncology.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: Hi, I'm Dr. Kathryn Hudson, I'm an oncologist here at Texas Oncology in Austin. When I looked at her labs, it was clear to me that she had leukemia. Just having to deliver that news, especially a diagnosis like leukemia that tends to hit really fast, and often hits in young people who were previously healthy just a couple weeks before, is always very, very difficult, so much so that, oftentimes the patients don't believe me, or they can't believe me, because it just seems so crazy that this could be happening.

Ted Canova: And before even meeting her new patient, Dr. Hudson could predict Sydney's reaction.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: "She's just confused, this doesn't happen to new mothers, there can't be anything that wrong with me."

Ted Canova: Dr. Hudson knows the importance of these first meetings, when her news, her voice, and her words will be life changing to patients.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: I have to remind myself to slow down and just deliver the news as gently as possible because, for the patient, it's like a Mac truck has just hit you, so I knew I was going to have to go in and meet this young person who had just delivered her first child and tell her that she had leukemia.

Ted Canova: Hearing the word leukemia could trigger the worst, especially when those around you have been diagnosed.

(Cut back to interview with Sydney)

Ted Canova: Did you go to the worst-case scenario, immediately?

Sydney Townsend: A little bit. We had a really close family friend who had leukemia, and he fought it for five years and ultimately died. So, I thought either "This means I'm going to die immediately, or they're totally wrong," I didn't even consider that I might live.

Ted Canova: So then the test results came back, how many days did that take?

Sydney Townsend: Yeah, that imaging happened on Thursday, I was able to get in at Texas Oncology on a Friday, Father's Day weekend, so it was our first Father's Day as a new family. On that Friday, I went in, and they said, "We think you either have leukemia or lymphoma, we're going to take a bone marrow biopsy today, and we'll tell you on Monday." So, we had to spend that weekend as a family waiting, and contemplating, and that's when the worst-case scenarios start really ramping up, you know, what does this mean. And we tried to celebrate Father's Day…

(Sounds of blowing out air in background)

Sydney Townsend, talking to her baby: What are you doing?

Baby: I'm making a wish.

(Cut back to interview)

Syndey Townsend: …put on our bravest faces and tried, but it was really hard.

(Cut back to Sydney talking to her baby)

Sydney Townsend: What's your wish?

Baby: I can't tell, it's a secret.

Sydney Townsend: Oh you can't tell, it's a secret?

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: My back was hurting, so over that weekend, it got worse and worse. I later learned that I was breaking more vertebrae. By Monday, when we went in for the final diagnosis, I couldn't walk, I was on a walker that we borrowed from an elderly friend to even shuffle into the doctor's office. It was really serious.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: Here I was going to see this woman who had just had her first baby. Luckily, the baby was healthy, and I knew that I was going to give this devastating news that would change her vision of being a mom and of motherhood. Here I was, walking in, with a big belly, with luckily a healthy pregnancy, and I was worried that it could trigger some negative feelings towards me or make her worried about how it would impact her as a mother. I was probably more conscious of it than Sydney was.

Ted Canova: But rather than being an obstacle, Dr. Hudson's belly and what it symbolized forged an even closer bond between Sydney and her oncologist.

Sydney Townsend: It turns out she was pregnant. It immediately put me at ease in a way, because I knew that she knew exactly what was on the line for me.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: We really have a special bond.

(Music break, cut back to Ted Kenova’s interview with Sydney)

Ted Canova: It happened so fast.

Sydney Townsend: So fast.

Ted Canova: It happened within a week.

Sydney Townsend: Yeah.

Ted Canova: All of a sudden, you can't walk.

Sydney Townsend: All of a sudden, I can't walk. We got to the office, it was me, my husband, my parents, get in a wheelchair up to the office, and they said, "You have acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This is life threatening, and you need to go to the hospital now." And I said, "Well, but, ok, I'm going to go home and pack some bags and get some things together, and I need to say goodbye to my daughter," and they said, "Nope, you are going straight to the hospital."

Ted Canova: Dr. Hudson remembers the conversation like it was yesterday.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: You don't have any time to waste. You gotta start right away, because these are really aggressive, fast-growing blood cancers, and somebody else can pack your bags and this has to start now, your treatment has to start now if we're going to save your life. I said, "Sorry Sydney, you're stuck here."

She handles that news better than 99% of people, she said, "Ok, this is the reality of the situation, this is our plan, we're going to go through six months of intensive chemotherapy and then two more years of therapy after that, and, in some ways, life-long therapy, and we're going to do this because I want to get well, I want to survive and be the best mom I can, and of course, wife and daughter."

Ted Canova: Sydney's case was unusual, because it wasn't just the cancer she was fighting, other parts of her body were breaking down too.

Sydney Townsend: By the time I checked in, not only had a completely broken back, but I was septic, and if I had waited any longer, I don't even know if I'd be here.

Ted Canova: Did you have a chance to park the worst-case scenario for a second to say "No, I'm going to beat this," or right when it happens, there's no room for that?

Sydney Townsend: I was kind of frozen and just, "Ok, well, we're just going to do the next step and the next step," and, of course I was scared, but I did have faith in my doctors and my care team, and if they said I could beat it, then I was going to beat it and I was going to do everything that I could to beat it.

Ted Canova: To beat cancer, faith goes a long way, and so does being close to home, having your care team and family nearby providing a human touch and being right here. And for Sydney, she also tapped her strength as an athlete and former boxer.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: She's a very strong person and she always had her eye on the prize.

(Cut back to Ted Canova interview with Sydney)

Ted Canova: Facing cancer can often be surreal, like, "This can't be happening to me."

Sydney Townsend: I think I just kept thinking, "Oh, they're overreacting," like, you know, there's a denial factor, you want them to be wrong, like, "Well, they just, they gotta say that to be really safe," and I think, really when I got there and got checked in and they said, "You're septic, we're so glad you're here," and my spine kept breaking over the time that I was there, you know, it got worse and worse, and so I knew that I was where I needed to be, I couldn't be at home.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: She has a type of leukemia called acute lymphoblastic leukemia that is Philadelphia chromosome positive. Treatment for that includes very heavy-duty chemotherapy, and since she had that she also took a targeted medication, which is called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, and so she started taking that right away along with the chemotherapy.

Sydney Townsend: This is a very rare complication that I had.

Ted Canova: And Sydney's broken vertebrae made it even worse.

Sydney Townsend: It turned out that I fractured 20 vertebrae in my back. So from about my shoulder blades, all the way down to the very end of my spine, and the pain was unbelievable. You can't see or feel the leukemia, but the back pain was intense. I even, at one point, was pushing myself up in the bed to try to eat and broke my sternum just from pushing to sit up, and I remember my dad coming in the room, and I said to him, "I don't think I should be alive if I'm like this, I can't care for my child, what would I be to her?"

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: I wasn't there, but she told me about it. It was just so devastating that on top of having the leukemia and having to go through chemo, that she also had to deal with the severe pain. So it was like a triple whammy, just having delivered, having a newborn at home, having multiple vertebrae broken and so much pain, and then on top of that, dealing with the prognosis and chemo and all that. So it was incredibly difficult for anyone to survive and deal with.

Sydney Townsend: Because when you're in the middle of that kind of pain, and when bones just keep breaking and breaking, it feels like it's not going to end. But it did, it did eventually end. It started to seem possible that I could continue this journey when my bones stopped breaking and we got the right medicines onboard, then I said, "Ok, I can move on to the next step."

Ted Canova: And that next step was Sydney's treatment plan.

Sydney Townsend: I was on these cycles every 21 days, so the first five days of the 21-day cycle I would be hospitalized for five days of chemo and then I would go home, and then if I got sick or had a fever I had to go back, and that started happening more and more and more frequently the further I got in my chemo. I would get fevers and have to go back. So I ended up in the hospital for the better part of six months.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: For this type of cancer, it's always a long road. There are always bumps in the road, so my hope was that we could just get her through those bumps in the road and those infections that would inevitably come up.

(Cut back to Ted Canova's interview with Sydney)

Ted Canova: Talk about giving up control…

Sydney Townsend: Yeah.

Ted Canova: …and now being defined not as a wife or a mother, but as a cancer patient.

Sydney Townsend: Yeah.

Ted Canova: That stigma, did it hurt even more that you lost who you were?

Sydney Townsend: Yes, I mean, it's a complete shift, and I had just gone through an identity shift in becoming a mother and really immersing myself in that. This whole diagnosis happened when my daughter was three months old.

(Cut to Sydney talking to her baby)

Baby, babbling in background: I feel safe, we're home.

Sydney Townsend, speaking to her daughter: We're home?

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: And then trying to go back to be a working mom, and then all of that was stripped away, and suddenly I was just a patient, and, a broken patient, who could barely walk, with no hair. Before my diagnosis, I could usually walk in a room and command attention, I was tall, 5'10", blonde, I liked to wear cowboy boots and high heels, and, you know, people noticed me, and then... I was on a walker, in a clam-shell brace, with no hair, and people were noticing me for really different reasons, and that was hard.

Ted Canova: So things started improving, you were going back monthly for chemo?

Sydney Townsend: I finished those eight initial, very difficult rounds, I finished that over about six months, and then it went to quote unquote "easy"chemo, I guess, once every 28 days I would go back just for outpatient chemo. It was just one drug instead of a cocktail of many drugs, so it started to get, definitely, easier, but not normal life either.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: What I tell patients too, we have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst and take it one step at a time. We always have to be cautious.

(Music break)

Ted Canova: When it got easier, was there reason to feel more hopeful, or did you feel like, "This is a battle going on inside of me, am I going to beat this, or is it like, waiting in the weeds to attack me in new ways"?

Sydney Townsend: Yeah, lurking. I mostly chose to be optimistic, and when I got through those eight really hard rounds, I started to feel like, "I can do this," it's going to be hard, it's not going to be fun, but I can do it, and every treatment cycle that went by with no sign of cancer was just another notch on my belt, one more step forward, another block of confidence, because, the farther you get with no signs of cancer, then the better the chances are. It's like a car that's building momentum, you're getting faster and faster. I didn't focus a lot on the fear of it coming back.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: She was in a pretty good remission right from the beginning after the first cycle of chemotherapy, so I always remain very optimistic that her leukemia was in great shape. That being said, you have to continue treatment for the long term to make sure that continues.

Ted Canova: Is there a way to sum up what those two years did to you physically and emotionally, and perhaps growth?

Sydney Townsend: Yeah, it took me on a rollercoaster ride of the lowest and most vulnerable and stripped down that I've ever felt, but gave me new tools to learn to be stronger in my life. You can't just focus on yourself as an athlete, or a mother, or a wife, you just have to sit with yourself in a space where you can't do a lot and you can't distract yourself very easily, you're stuck. You really have to do some inner work, and I did, I think it really changed my ability to handle any stress, things look small in comparison, but it also taught me to be present.

I kind of think of it as the most zen training ever, like you have to be here now. There's nowhere else you can be, and I learned to appreciate the day-to-day, the moment-to-moment, the small victories. I really couldn't plan farther out than a few days or weeks, I just, my health was kind of too fragile, and so you just have to enjoy where you are.

Ted Canova: So two years pass, things were trending in a positive way up until August 2020.

Sydney Townsend: I knew it was a countdown to the finish line, I was almost there.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: And I felt like, "Ok, I think we're really turning the corner here, and I think she's really getting better, and her hair's started growing back." It was great to see.

Sydney Townsend: There was this little thing happening out there in the world, the pandemic, that was another layer of fun to consider, but I knew I had to be extra careful until I got to that finish line because I was extra vulnerable to the virus. So, I knew that my last treatment was on the books, I prepared for it, I knew what I wanted to do to celebrate even in a modified pandemic way. I called the Texas Oncology office where I was gonna get my last treatment and talked to the director and said, "Hey, I really want to do something to celebrate, I know that it's a pandemic, but what is ok to do to celebrate?" and she said I could bring individually wrapped treats.

So my husband went to the grocery store and bought, I think, all the Lindt chocolate bars that they had, he bought like 80, and then my favorite chemo snack was Cheetos, you know, very nutritionally supportive, but, really got me through a lot of chemo. I walked into the clinic on that last day and at check-in I shared the goodie bag and shared the good news, and I walked all around the waiting room and shared the goodie bag and shared the good news.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: I saw her first, and she was just really excited that it was her last one.

Sydney Townsend: I shared the good news with the lab and shared the treats, same to my care team and the infusion room. I made signs to hang up with the food to encourage others for their own fight and their own finish line, and at the end of that treatment, I got to ring the bell…

(Sound of excited cheering and bell ringing in the background)

Sydney Townsend: …which was this really cool thing that cancer patients get to do on their last treatment. I remember sitting in so many other infusions, because, my god, I did 31 rounds of infusions, and hearing other people ring the bell and feeling like that was so far away for me. When I finally got to do it, it was so joyful.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: Especially after a road like hers, which was just so difficult in the beginning, it was just such a wonderful feeling to hear her ring the bell and knew that she was on to a different chapter in her life.

Sydney Townsend: So, I ring the bell and it was like "ding ding ding ding ding", and I did a dance and they threw confetti on me which I didn't know was going to happen.

Dr. Kathryn Hudson: And we all cheered, it was really remarkable. One of the best parts about being an oncologist is the bond you have with your patients.

Sydney Townsend: I didn't know her before I went, I just knew I needed to go to Texas Oncology and I ended up getting, I'll call it matched, with Katheryn Hudson, and she is a young, super smart, intelligent, thorough, kind, doctor.

Dr. Katheryn Hudson: I think because of Sydney's unique circumstances and being similar age and similar places in our life, at this point Sydney has an excellent prognosis. She made it through her treatment and continues to do great, so I really do think she is cured of this cancer. I would say to Sydney that she is an inspiration, to me, for being against such great odds and sticking through the very tough plan through thick and thin, taking it one step at a time, and just keeping your eye on the prize. I think that is really inspiring to me and I think we can all learn from that.

Sydney Townsend, crying: I would say "Thank you," yeah, and I have said thank you, thank you for saving my life…

(Cut to Sydney talking to her baby)

Baby talking in background: Monsters be gone!

Sydney, talking to her daughter: Monsters be gone!

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: …for giving me the chance to be a mother…

(Cut back to Sydney talking with her daughter, then cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: …for bringing me to work at an organization that I can serve, the organization who saved my life, and a community of people like me…

(Cut to Sydney speaking to someone at Texas Oncology)

Voice: Good morning, how are you?

Sydney Townsend: I'm so good!

(Cut back to interview)

Sydney Townsend: …thank you for giving me birthday parties, even 40th birthday parties, thank you for every day.

(Music break)

Sydney Townsend: It is emotional, and it should be emotional, and that's something that I've learned to embrace. I used to be scared to show what seemed like a weakness, but I'm like, forged in steel now, and it's a river of tears and pain that got me here, but it is ok to feel those feelings. I think about everyone else out there going through this every day, and I wish for them to be on this side of the story, telling their story, reaching their arms back to their community, and loving every day.

(Music break)

Ted Canova: Sydney now has a chance to help other cancer fighters ring that bell. She's taken a job at Texas Oncology in a new position, as director of virtual care. Next, on "Right Here", two women form a bond over cancer.

Woman’s voice: I'm grateful that someone would allow me into their life, that means a lot to me.

Other woman’s voice: I told her, I said, "You are the first non-family member in my life to be on my island."

Ted Canova: Don't miss our next episode when we meet Lisa and Erica.

 

We hope you enjoyed "Right Here", a podcast from Texas Oncology, who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, contact TexasOncology.com. I'm Ted Canova, see ya next time.

END