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Finding strength in adversity

After being diagnosed with cancer during her pregnancy, Sarah Garrison Addison ’09 and husband Ryan Addison ’07 have found a new outlook in life.

Sarah ’09 and Ryan ’07 Addison with son Benjamin

By Roselee Papandrea

It was supposed to be one of the happiest days of their lives—the day Sarah Garrison Addison ’09 and Ryan Addison ’07 learned the sex of their unborn baby. Sarah and Ryan were thrilled they were having a boy, although the excitement waned as soon as the high-risk obstetrician walked into the room.

“I was really nervous,” Sarah recalls. “I thought he was there to talk about the baby.” He was actually there to discuss managing cancer during pregnancy.

Sarah’s body had been changing daily. She noticed a lump in her breast and thought it was just part of pregnancy. Following her midwife’s advice, she had an ultrasound and biopsy just to be safe. Cancer was the farthest thing from Sarah’s mind.

“I remember the doctor said to Ryan and I, ‘You guys look like you just got hit by a bus.’ Well, we did just get hit by a bus,” Sarah says.

Diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, which is often aggressive, doesn’t respond to hormone therapy and is more likely to recur, Sarah immediately started chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. On Nov. 6, while she was seven months pregnant, she had a double mastectomy.

“There is no sort of maintenance medication,” Sarah says. “I’m on my own hoping it doesn’t come back so I decided to be aggressive.”

The surgery rid her of the cancer cells, but the baby’s erratic heartbeat kept her in and out of the hospital that month. When Benjamin was born on Nov. 25, six weeks early, he was healthy—a relief to Sarah and Ryan.

But along with the joy of motherhood came a slew of new worries. Sarah felt all the wonder and pressure associated with caring for a newborn as well as fear for her own life. Three weeks after the baby was born, she had surgery to begin the reconstructive process.

On New Year’s Eve, she started a second round of chemotherapy. Radiation treatments started at the end of February, in time for her to go back to work full time. She will have another reconstructive surgery this summer.

Swarmed by so many heavy thoughts, from concerns about losing her long hair to facing her own mortality, Sarah struggled to make sense of it all.

“There are a lot of phases to go through,” she says. “I wondered, ‘Am I going to die?’ I’m pregnant and bringing life into the world. I had a difficult time processing that—bringing a child into the world and then possibly leaving him.”

She credits Ryan with making it all manageable.

“He is so positive. He broke the treatment  down into seven parts,” she says. “We focused on each part.”

The couple met at Elon. She was a freshman, he was a junior and right fielder on the baseball team. They were introduced at one of Ryan’s games and started dating soon after. They got married in August 2010. They both work in information technology sales and their jobs led them to Denver where they now live.

Sarah hopes that one day she’ll make it through an entire day without thinking about cancer.

“I don’t want to bury my pink shirts and pretend it never happened,” she says. “But I don’t want to be ‘Miss Cancer’ and let it consume my life.”

In the days leading up to Mother’s Day, Ryan wrote on his Facebook page: Before becoming a dad, I was regularly on a mission to win the race/conquer the world.Being a dad routinely reminds me that Ive already won the race and have such a wonderful world right here at home.

If nothing else, Sarah wants to be a resource for other young women battling a similar fate. At age 25 and with no family history, Sarah discovered she’s fairly young to face breast cancer. “I hope I can help someone else move forward,” she says. “This had to happen for a reason, and I guess the reason would be so I can help other people.”

And while there is no correlation between Sarah’s pregnancy and the disease, it definitely led to a quicker diagnosis.

“We joked from an early time that the baby saved my life,” Sarah says.

This story first appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of The Magazine of Elon.

Keren Rivas,
5/13/2013 11:40 AM