Melinda Simon's son, Dennis, saved her life.
Dennis's presence became known in December 2016, but during the 34-year-old Chicago resident's 12-week ultrasound in March, a cyst was found on her right ovary. Simon dismissed it, but doctors thought the 19-centimeter cyst warranted surgery immediately.
At the time of surgery, the cyst was large enough to touch her liver and made her look as though she were 40 weeks pregnant, according to her gynecological oncologist at Northwestern Hospital, Dr. Wilberto Nieves-Neira.
"I didn't really realize the severity of it at the time," recalled Simon. "I didn't have a lot of time to process what was going on. I just kind of went through the motions, so they removed the cyst and my right ovary. Honestly, I just thought that I ate a lot of cheese – I thought I was just really bloated."
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The cyst turned out to be stage 1A ovarian cancer.
By May, Simon was undergoing three rounds of chemotherapy. During the process, Dennis was growing perfectly, said Simon. Dennis is the first grandchild for her side of the family, and he was "either right where he should be or ahead of his percentile marks" during the chemo regimen. Low birth weight was a potential side effect of the chemo but did not affect Dennis, who was born full-term Sept. 11 at 8 pounds, 12 ounces.
"He was perfectly healthy, and he's been perfectly healthy ever since," Simon said of Dennis, who is nearly 4 months old. "He's such a good baby. He's in the 79th percentile for his height. He's lifting his head up on his own. He's progressing so well and so perfectly, I couldn't be happier. He's been sleeping through the night since 3 weeks. He's been a great baby to me and for my family. Dennis is my mother's pride and joy now, that's for sure."
Last year was quite a year for Simon: surgery, recovery for six to eight weeks before starting chemo, chemo for two months that ended in June, and then recovering to give birth. For someone who'd had no history of cysts or cancer in her family, the diagnosis was shocking.
"In hindsight, I guess I noticed symptoms even before December, but before that, I was on birth control," she said. "I just thought I'm older now, and I'm just getting different types of cramps, so it's fine and not to worry.
"And when you're trying to get pregnant, your mind isn't anywhere near cancer, it's all about creating a life. I feel, as women, we often feel like, 'OK, let's just keep moving along. This is normal life.' But sometimes it isn't. It's hard to figure out when to raise the red flag."
Now, Simon and her husband of 17 years, her high school sweetheart, Justin, are on the other side of the diagnosis.
"This has just strengthened our relationship, and now we have a beautiful baby to celebrate all of it with. He looks just like his dad. They both have the same mannerisms. I'm just so happy now that I just want to spread it to everyone."
She considers herself lucky that the cancer was caught early. Simon's last CT scan Oct. 17 showed no signs of cancer. But checkups will continue every three months for the next two years, Nieves-Neira said.
"I was just focused on surviving and making sure Dennis was safe and healthy. ... That's all that mattered," she said. "Then I got my all clear, so I could breathe again, but it's always creeping in the back of your head. I think that's what I'm currently struggling with in my head."
"This is going to be happening more often as more women are having babies at an older age," Nieves-Neira said about gynecological cancers. "It's very important that the community understands and realizes that there is a lot that can be done safely for both the patient and the baby if a situation of cancer occurs during pregnancy."
Simon said that had it not been for her pregnancy, she might have just kept "trucking along" not realizing the seriousness of her symptoms.
"Dennis, my baby, definitely saved my life in that aspect, so I'm very grateful," said the first-time mom. "No one wants cancer. No one definitely wants cancer while pregnant, but he definitely saved my life."