“You have cancer” is a phrase nobody wants to hear.
Being nearly eight months pregnant and hearing those words is even worse, but that was the disheartening case for Nisswa native Sara (Christensen) Hayden last summer.
Pequot Lakes graduate and daughter of Nisswa’s Debbie and Jim Christensen, Hayden, now 43, didn’t think much of the aches she had during pregnancy at first.
She felt the normal fatigue associated with pregnancy, and when her bottom started to hurt, she assumed it was hemorrhoids, a common occurrence with pregnant women in their third trimester.
“All of the symptoms I was having, nobody would have known that I had cancer because it was all just normal pregnancy symptoms,” she said during a phone interview Jan. 30 from her home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
But then things went downhill one Sunday in August when Hayden was school shopping for her 5-year-old son Will, who was about to start kindergarten. She experienced shortness of breath and had a hard time walking. Still, cancer never crossed her mind.
As Hayden went into the emergency room to get checked out, she thought it could be blood clots, which she’d had before. Or it might be something to do with her heart, after having gone into cardiac arrest 10 years ago during a spin class. She now has a defibrillator implanted in her chest.
She started to feel something more serious was wrong when the results of her CT scan took a long time to come back. Then her obstetrician/gynecologist showed up in her hospital room, which was odd for a Sunday afternoon.
“I could just tell by the look on his face something wasn’t right,” Hayden recalled.
Her pain was soon explained — stage 4 colorectal cancer that had spread to her liver and lungs.
The need for treatment was a given, but not while Hayden was still pregnant. They gave her steroids for a couple days to help with the baby’s lung development, and three days after being diagnosed, Hayden had a cesarean section and was a mom once again.
Baby Finley came into the world Aug. 14 weighing just 2 pounds, 12 ounces.
“She was just a tiny thing,” Hayden said of her premature daughter. “... I got to see her, and then they took her, obviously, to take care of her. And I told my husband, I’m like, ‘Go with her. I’ll be fine.’”
How to help
A GoFundMe page is set up at gofundme.com/f/scadn5-help-the-haydens to help Hayden and her family with medical expenses and to recoup her lost salary for the year.
She would soon find out though, that ‘fine’ was a vast overstatement.
After the C-section, Hayden said she felt a tugging sensation in her abdomen and remembers telling the anesthesiologist something didn’t feel right. Then she heard the doctor say something about getting units of blood up to the room, just before passing out.
As it turns out, Hayden almost bled out after the C-section and needed about nine units of blood and a trauma team to stabilize her. Then she had a partial hysterectomy and woke up in the intensive care unit with a breathing tube and no recollection of what happened.
Again, she first assumed it was something with her heart.
“I didn’t want to know right away,” she said. “I was like, I don’t care. I’m here. God’s got a plan for me. He got me through this.”
Baby Finley spent about three weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, and Hayden recovered from her whirlwind few days of immense hormone changes from being pregnant, then having a baby all of a sudden and then getting a partial hysterectomy.
“I was always positive,” she said. “... For me, my faith is really what got me through.”
Fast forward to the present day, and Finley is a healthy, thriving baby, busy rolling over and already starting to grow teeth. She turns 6 months old Feb. 14.
And her mom is powering through chemo, having finished 11 rounds so far.
“I try not to dwell on it,” Hayden said of the cancer. “I do what I need to do. I trust my doctor.”
Her doctor, she said, is working to get the recommended age for colonoscopies lowered from 50. The American Cancer Society now recommends colonoscopies at age 45, but Hayden was only 42 when diagnosed.
But again, she tries not to dwell on the cancer. She embraces her new normal of going to the hospital for chemotherapy every other Wednesday and readies herself for the oncoming bouts of fatigue and nausea.
Perhaps the hardest change to adapt to, though, is not working. Hayden is a middle school math teacher and learned of her diagnosis just two days into the school year. She took a leave of absence for the rest of the year.
“It was hard to get through that, ‘What’s my purpose?’” she said. “... I’ve worked every day of my life. I’ve always had a full time job. I always got up in the morning and went to work. And now, it’s like, OK, now what’s my purpose?”
But now she’s gotten to the point where she realized her new purpose — taking care of herself and her family.
Six-year-old Will knows his mom has cancer and has a port implanted when she gets chemo but likely doesn’t understand much beyond that. The kindergartner had a bit of a tough time at first, having to start school while his mom was in the hospital, suddenly getting a new baby sister and having extended family and friends crowding his house.
Fortunately, though, Hayden said he seems to be adjusting to the new normal, too, thanks to helpful resources from the hospital and his school.
“He loves to help,” she said. “And (Finley) just adores him.”
Then there’s the changing dynamics between Hayden and her husband Brandon, a special education teacher, who is now the sole breadwinner and takes on more household duties as they both rely more heavily on services like Target drive-up and Amazon, Hayden’s new best friend.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be the spouse of somebody with cancer, and he doesn’t know what it’s like to have cancer,” she said. “What he’s dealing with and I’m dealing with are two different things. But we just try to remember that life is short and just enjoy the little things because you never know.”
And they also remember to appreciate all the help they’ve received over the past six months. Between Hayden’s Minnesota family and her Kansas-based in-laws, a constant stream of out-of-town family members have come to Colorado to help out with the kids and do what they can to alleviate some stress.
“It’s a blessing. We appreciate it,” she said during the phone interview at the end of January, as she prepared for a visit from her younger brother, who planned to come help after Hayden had surgery to replace her 10-year-old defibrillator, which stopped working recently.
Hayden and her family are no strangers to rallying around cancer. Her younger brother Adam died after a heart transplant needed because of cancer 34 years ago at the age of 13. He had rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and highly malignant form of cancer that develops in the body’s soft tissues.
And roughly 10 years ago, Hayden’s mom Debbie successfully battled breast cancer.
But when cancer struck again last year, Jim Christensen couldn’t believe he had to watch another child go through it.
“When I found out Sara had cancer, I mean, I was screaming in the front yard,” he said during a phone interview Friday, Feb. 7. “You know, how can God put me through this? And I'm a very godly Christian guy. It just upset me so bad.”
Known to many in the lakes area as Jimmy C from Tanner Motors, Christensen hopes the community he and his family have been a part of decades can help rally around his daughter like they did for his son so many years ago.
“People who have ever had a child with cancer or lost a child, it's a horrible disease,” he said. “And, you know, I guess we would say our prayers are with you, too.”
The future is still an unknown, but as long as the chemo keeps Hayden’s tumors as bay, she’ll continue on with it, in addition to a study research drug she’s taking. So far, the tumors have shrunk about 30%. Surgery to remove the tumors has proven risky with this sort of cancer, she has been told.
Right now, hope is crucial.
“I can’t imagine not having hope that it’s going to be OK,” Hayden said, adding that’s the message she has for anyone else who might be fighting a similar battle.
“Have hope that you’re going to be OK, and surround yourself with people that care,” she said. “Because people want to help. They do. They just don’t know how sometimes.”