Even when the pain becomes unbearable, cancer patient Ana Mendoza said one glance at her two-year-old son Nathan makes it all go away.
“He’s my miracle baby,” the North Vancouver mom told Metro from her bed at Lion’s Gate Hospital. “I tell him every day.”
Now two and a half years old, Nathan may not understand what his mom means when she says that, but Mendoza said she never wants him to forget how he helped save her life.
Mendoza was 17 weeks pregnant with Nathan when, during a routine checkup with her doctor, she and husband Victor Ulanday received the shocking and devastating diagnosis that she had Stage II cervical cancer.
“The first thing they wanted us to do was terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “It was very intimidating because it seemed like I had no other choice.”
Faced with the seemingly impossible decision, Mendoza, 40, said she couldn’t fathom losing the pregnancy. If it wasn’t for Nathan, Mendoza said she wouldn’t have known she had cancer. She decided to ask her doctor if there were any other options.
“I couldn’t let him go,” she said. “He’s totally the guy who saved my life.”
When an oncologist suggested trying a low dose of chemotherapy during the pregnancy to prevent the tumour from growing, Mendoza agreed to try. But seven weeks later, doctors were shocked to find the tumour, initially two centimeters, had continued growing despite the chemotherapy. It was now almost seven centimetres, she said.
Twenty-eight weeks into her pregnancy, Mendoza gave birth to a severely premature baby boy. Soon after, she started full-dose chemo and radiation, but still managed to spend every other waking moment beside Nathan’s incubator in the neo-natal intensive care unit, praying that he would survive.
“I made him a deal that I’ll take all the pain and then you do really well,” she said. “I’ll go through anything so that you survive and you do really well, and that’s what happened.”
Eventually both Mendoza and Nathan were discharged and went back home to be with the rest of the family, including the couple’s daughter, five-year-old Lanna.
Both seemed to be healthy until early last year when Mendoza suddenly developed a severe pain in her back, followed by lumps in her neck a few months later.
The cancer had returned and spread to her lymphatic system, doctors told her. She was given six months left to live.
“The lumps were everywhere,” she said. “Because of that, they said they can’t do anything.”
A year later, Mendoza said she is still taking her battle day by day. Last week, she suddenly couldn’t move her legs and was admitted to hospital again. Doctors told her a tumour on her vertebrae has caused her to become paralyzed.
Her pain is also becoming increasingly worse, she said.
“It’s hard,” she said, adding that she’s trying to focus instead on things that make her happy, like spending time with her kids. “We’re managing symptoms now.”
While he tries to stay strong for Ana, Ulanday said his wife’s strength throughout her battle continues to floor him. On Saturday, Ulanday is taking part in Vancouver’s annual Underwear Affair in honour of his heroic wife. The event sees participants walk, race or complete challenges while wearing their underwear to raise awareness of below-the-waist cancers and raise funds for cancer research at the B.C. Cancer Agency.
“She’s my rock,” he said. “She’s been fighting this with grace and courage for the whole nine yards.”
Although Nathan is too young to comprehend the severity of his mom’s illness, Ulanday said he hopes his son will one day understand how deeply his mother cared for him.
“Your mommy always loved you,” he said, fighting back tears. “Your mommy is always going to be there loving you.”