Imagine yourself as a 33-year-old single mother to be – on the cusp of bringing your first child into the world. Imagine – or, recall – the nervousness and uncertainty. The excitement and anticipation.
Place yourself in that space – and then imagine your world being turned upside-down, shaken like a snow globe.
That’s the reality Lindsay Albert has lived through, emerging on the other side with a healthy baby and a positive outlook – but things didn’t always look so hopeful.
On November 12, 2015, Lindsay welcomed her son, Emmet, into the world. A new chapter in her life had begun to take shape – settling into her career as a biologist for a pharmaceutical company, living in her recently purchased home (her first), and ready to set out on the all-encompassing journey that is motherhood. A dream job, a new home, and a healthy newborn baby boy – things were stable, except for a pesky ailment that had been irritating her towards the end of her pregnancy.
“I had been having respiratory problems – basically, difficulty breathing – in the weeks leading up to Emmet’s birth,” recalls Lindsay in a recent conversation with the Joe Andruzzi Foundation. “At the time, the doctors thought it was being caused by the baby pushing on my lungs. But as my due date got closer, I began having difficulties swallowing.”
With just days until Emmet’s impending arrival, Lindsay’s doctors had limited options available to help them make an accurate diagnosis. Late-stage pregnancies are not candidates for x-rays or a variety of other diagnostic measures, and Lindsay would have to wait until after she gave birth to fully investigate the roots of her symptoms.
“When I was at hospital right after I had Emmet, I had low oxygen counts, and later my throat felt like it was closing, so breathing had become extremely difficult,” says Lindsay, who returned home a few days later, hoping the symptoms would subside.
When her situation did not improve at home, it was clear that something wasn’t right.
“My sister is a nurse, and urged me to go to an urgent care facility in Framingham [Mass.]”
“They did a chest x-ray,” she remembers, “and a few minutes later, when the doctor came in with the results, he just said ‘you better sit down’.”
An 11 x 10 x 7-centemeter mass had showed up on the scan right above Lindsay’s heart, next to her chest bone. Immediately sent to Framingham’s Union Hospital where further CT scans and tests were run, initial speculation pointed towards melanoma – but a conclusive biopsy was needed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (where Emmet had been born just weeks before).
Admitted to the hospital on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Lindsay eventually had exploratory surgery two days later. On Saturday, November 28th – less than three weeks after the birth of her son – Lindsay received the dreaded diagnosis.
She had cancer.
Advanced primary mediastinal Large B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, to be exact.
Intertwined with the aorta and numerous blood vessels of the heart, Lindsay’s tumor was so large that it was causing her trachea to be deviated and restricted blood flow, causing several blood clots in her neck and extremities. She would need to begin treatment immediately.
"I had just bought my first home, was just getting over having to break-up with my long-time boyfriend and getting used to the idea of being a single mom, Emmet was only two weeks old – I was in total shock," Lindsay says. "You think that nothing worse could happen to you in the near future, and then I got the diagnosis. You realize that no one is invincible."
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”
After a week spent recovering in the hospital from her invasive biopsy, Lindsay started chemotherapy.
“I was there for about two weeks straight,” she recalls. “After that, I started on a cycle of 17 days at home followed by six days back in the hospital for treatment, and that continued over and over again. As hard as spending six days in the hospital were, the 17 days at home was no vacation. You’re weak, your bones ache, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t work or even go grocery shopping. I couldn’t take care of my son on my own.”
The treatment would go on for months, and life would have to be put on hold.
“Family is really important to me,” Lindsay reveals. “I have a huge family, and getting diagnosed right before Thanksgiving meant I missed the holidays, which was especially heartbreaking after having a beautiful baby. Everyone wanted to meet him – but I had to isolate him from outside germs because he could pass them on to me.”
“Chemotherapy is so strong,” she explains. “It knocks out your entire immune system, and you’re so much more susceptible to getting sick or catching an infection.”
Luckily, Lindsay and Emmet were surrounded by an incredible support system.
“My mother and sister would bring [Emmet] to the hospital to visit with me for anywhere from three to six hours a day – each and every day,” she remembers. “Usually children are not allowed in the lymphoma unit, but since I had a newborn they thought I was a special case. The doctors and nurses at Beth Israel were so nice – they moved me to a floor where the breast cancer patients are (who don’t usually have compromised immune systems) and they gave me a private room so my son could visit me.”
“He’s such a trooper,” she says of her now-six-month-old. “He stayed at different houses, he spent so much time in the car going back and forth from the hospital. The first week he stayed with me overnight at Beth Israel – the nurses brought in a bassinet, which made me cry. I was so thankful.”
Months of treatment, in and out of the hospital, took more than just a physical toll on Lindsay. Out of work on disability (which only covered a percentage of her salary), combined with a sudden increased monthly mortgage bill, left the single mother to wonder how she was going to make ends meet.
“When you’re going through treatment, the last thing you have the energy to think about is paying bills – but that doesn’t mean they just disappear,” she says. “When you’re not working, everything is an expense, and there are so many things that get thrown at you. Breastfeeding was not an option, because the chemo basically turns your milk into poison, so I was suddenly having to buy $100 a month worth of formula. There were thousands upon thousands of dollars of medical bills; it was overwhelming.”
One day during treatment, while explaining her financial fears to nurses and social workers at the hospital, she received a suggestion to seek help from charitable sources.
“There were so many foundations out there that gave me hundreds of pieces of paperwork to fill out to see if I qualified for financial assistance – but between chemo, going back and forth from the hospital, and raising a newborn, it was tough to find time to read through it all,” Lindsay says. “One day a social worker helped me find the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, and I was able to easily apply for help with my monthly mortgage payment. A few days later, I received a check in the mail.”
“It was such a relief,” Lindsay says. “It was like a load of bricks had been lifted off of my shoulders. I could just focus on getting through the chemo and taking care of Emmet – and not having to think about how I was going to make that payment. When you’re in the hospital for six full months, it’s just so draining – but that month felt so nice.”
In early April of 2016, Lindsay completed her last treatment and returned home – this time, she hopes, for good.
“I’m feeling a lot better these days, and my eyelashes and eyebrows are growing back,” Lindsay says of her remission. “When you first start looking at yourself without hair, you see a sick person staring back at you in the mirror, but the last time I saw my doctor he excitedly said ‘you’ve got fuzz [on your head!]’, which made me happy.”
Lindsay’s advice to cancer patients in similar situations?
“Take advantage of your resources,” she says. “Talk to the nurses; they are so caring. I spoke up and asked a nurse, who then connected me to a social worker, who then explained how the Joe Andruzzi Foundation may be able to help. Their financial support is so valuable in desperate times – and I had a percentage of my salary from disability. I can’t imagine what people with no income go through. They should know there are organizations out there [like JAF] that can help.”
After a six-month nightmare, Lindsay is finally getting the chance to resume the life she started last November with little- Emmet. The snow globe encompassing their life – once flipped upside-down – has begun to settle, and its previously murky, uncertain outlook is giving way to a much clearer, happier future.
“I’m feeling a little bit closer to normal, and my energy is starting to come back,” she says. “I’ve been battling since November, and now that Spring time is finally here, I feel motivated to get out more and take my son for walks in the stroller.”
A well-deserved return to normalcy that Lindsay is looking forward to.
“Before my diagnosis, I used to be big into fitness and health – I made fresh green juice every week for several years,” she adds. “I would run three-to-five miles every day with my dogs, and I loved participating in 5K's for charities, relay races, and Spartan challenges.”
There’s no doubt Lindsay will conquer every race she enters when the time comes; each will be a reminder of the hurdles she has overcome and the marathon-like treatment cycles she somehow maintained positivity throughout.
For now, though, Lindsay is just appreciative of the career she’s itching to resume, the house she worked so hard to call her own, the family that supported her relentlessly in the darkest hours, and the six-month-old trooper who stuck by her side – even when he was considered a “visitor”.
Now, if you’ll excuse them, Lindsay and Emmet have some strolling to catch up on.