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Images of Life

At age 27, DeAnn O'Hara loved her life. She and husband Patrick worked as customs border protection officers on the Canadian border. And now she was three months pregnant with their first child. It was a perfect picture.

But her discovery of a fast-growing breast lump changed everything.

In late October 2009, she and Patrick traveled five hours from their home in Kenmare, N.D., to Sanford Breast Health in Fargo. They wanted an expert opinion.

Two days after an urgent exam and tests, they received the results.

Being together

"Devastating," says DeAnn, recalling the phone call from Sanford breast surgeon Dr. Michael Bouton. "I had aggressive breast cancer, and the pregnancy hormones likely sped its growth. I was so glad Patrick was with me when I found out."

The rapid growth prompted fast action. The following week they traveled to Fargo to learn more.

"Dr. Bouton was very good. He was forthright and told us everything -- best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and everything in between," she says. "That helped us."

DeAnn would need the expertise of several specialists: oncologist Dr. Shelby Terstriep from Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center, fetal medicine specialists from Sanford Women’s, neonatologists from Sanford Children’s, and more. All would work as one team to successfully treat DeAnn’s cancer while keeping her baby safe and healthy.

Seeing the baby

"When I learned what was involved in treatment, I was worried," says DeAnn. "I knew I could survive the chemo, but could our baby?"

DeAnn felt some relief when Dr. Terstriep informed her that being past the first trimester was a big plus. The chemotherapy needed to shrink the tumor would not affect the baby.

At 18 weeks DeAnn got the proof she needed. Well into her chemotherapy, she was at Sanford for an ultrasound-guided test to better diagnose the cancer spread.

"It was a terrible day, but it ended with joy," she says. "After all the biopsy samples had been taken, the ultrasound tech said, 'I have the equipment right here. Would you like to see your baby?' Patrick came in and we got to see our baby's heart beating. We went home that day with ultrasound pictures, and I couldn't stop looking at them. I loved knowing he was alive and growing."

The images inspired DeAnn to keep fighting -- a mastectomy in January 2010, then more chemotherapy. She struggled with hair loss, breast loss, fatigue and more, but somehow found the strength to go on.

“I kept focusing on my growing baby, not myself. I had to get through this for him,” she says. “In a way, my baby saved me.”

Frequent fetal ultrasounds assured DeAnn and Patrick that all was on track. But at eight months, an ultrasound showed dangerously low amniotic fluid.

"In this whole experience, that's when I got most upset. We'd come so far..." she says. "It helped me to know that the fetal medicine specialists, Dr. Terstriep, Dr. Bouton and others were conferring with each other, trying to figure out the best approach. I had confidence in them."

DeAnn and Patrick agreed with their decision: induce labor.

Remembering the birth

On Feb. 25, 2010, Connor Wayne arrived weighing 4 pounds, 1 ounce. A Neonatal Intensive Care Unit team provided immediate specialized care in the delivery room.

"His birth was unforgettable," says DeAnn. "He cried immediately, he had lots of hair and except for being small, he was perfect. I even got to hold him briefly."

Connor spent the next 41 days in the NICU. DeAnn visited him daily, fitting in her chemotherapy treatments at the Cancer Center.

“Connor and I were both so well cared for,” she says. “The people at Sanford were incredible, plus I had great support from my family, friends and coworkers. I couldn’t have done this without them.”

Two steps remained: six weeks of radiation therapy in summer 2010 and a final round of chemotherapy. She completed all in early 2011.

Today DeAnn is cancer free. “Amazing,” she says, tearing up. “It was quite a battle…”

Embracing the day

It's late afternoon in June 2012. Now living in Pembina, N.D., the O'Hara family leads a busy life. DeAnn's home from her day's work as an import specialist. Patrick's on duty at the border and will arrive soon. And Connor? He's healthy, growing and has a plan.

"Come on Mama," he says tugging on her arm. "Let's play!"

Then comes the best image of all: She swoops him up in her arms, presses her face against his and gives him a kiss. Lost in the joy of the moment, they head to the backyard laughing.

Posted Date: July 2012