Linda Blair had just received news that she was pregnant with her third child when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2008.
The 46-year-old was 19 weeks into what had seemed a normal pregnancy when she was suddenly thrust into a grueling schedule of 21 doctor appointments in 21 days to develop a treatment plan.
Blair had an aggressive cancer and was lymph node positive (sometimes referred to as “triple-negative breast cancer”), so attacking the cancer with three rounds of chemotherapy while pregnant was a necessity.
Then her daughter Ava came three months early, weighing 2 pounds 2 ounces, and was fighting for life in the newborn intensive care unit, while her mother was fighting for hers with treatment.
“She’d had enough after three rounds of chemo with mom,” said Blair who was undergoing treatment at Samaritan Cancer Center’s Ambulatory Infusion Unit in Corvallis at the time.
After Ava was born, she and her husband, Rob, spent their days — 12 to 14 hours at a time — in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Eugene. Ava was in the hospital for 74 days. Before getting sick, Blair had worked in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Oregon State University, and she had to take a long leave of absence.
“It was very tough, but we were so focused on saving two lives, not much else mattered.”
In all, Blair had eight rounds of chemo, had surgery, and then another 12 weeks of chemo because some residual tumors were found. Finally, she had six and half weeks of radiation treatment. In all, it was nearly a full year of treatments.
One of the harder moments was when she had to have chemotherapy just nine days after an emergency C-section.
“I remember thinking, how is my body going to manage this?” Blair said. “It was just a really hard time. Very stressful. To me it was very surreal.”
Several times in the hospital and after they returned home to Corvallis, Ava stopped breathing.
“On the second night we were home, she turned blue,” Blair remembered. Her parents were able to get her breathing again with a simulator that had been sent home from the hospital with them.
“When you’re going through it, you just do it,” Blair said. “You try to stay positive and look for all those things that you’re grateful for.”
“People you don’t even know will just show up and do things for you.”
Blair had support from family, including her mother, who lives just a few blocks away in the Timberhill neighborhood. However, Ava wasn’t a baby who could ever be left with babysitters — or, for that matter, even family members.
When Blair returned to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center for surgery, nurses from Eugene’s NICU came up to take care of Ava.
Since the ordeal, Blair has been involved with several organizations that are working to fight cancer, including “Physicians Gourmet Faire,” Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center’s cancer fundraiser, and Defeat Cancer, a Bend-based program funded by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. She has also participated in the Samaritan Breast Health Fair, was a model for Project H.E.R.’s “Puttin’ on the Pink” Fashion Show sponsored by The Corvallis Clinic, has participated in the Relay For Life, and more.
In addition, Blair has become an “ambassador” for the Children’s Miracle Network and often shares the story of Ava’s birth at fundraisers, often bringing Ava on stage with her.
That’s award enough for the mother that fought so hard to keep herself and her daughter alive, but earlier this fall she got a huge surprise: Blair was named a “Pink Power Mom” by Atlanta, Ga.-based infant products company Kids II. The award was given to inspirational mothers who have survived breast cancer and have used their experience to make a difference.
Blair didn’t even know she was nominated until she won; her husband had put her up for the award. Across the nation, only eight people earned the honor this year.
“I thought it was a prank,” she said, when she got a phone call telling her that she’d be given $10,000 over the next five years to give to a charity of her choice.
She went to Atlanta in late November to collect her award and enjoy several days of pampering, parties and events.
“Just to be able to make difference; that was the best part of the award,” Blair said.
Unlike many of the longtime survivors honored at the event, Blair was only two years out from diagnosis and did not have her own charitable foundation.
“These women are phenomenal,” she said of the other award winners. “It’s very humbling and inspiring to see what they’re doing.”
After a lot of soul-searching, Blair came up with a plan for her donation, which will go to the Good Samaritan Hospital Foundation and is specifically earmarked for a breast cancer survivor lymphedema support program.
Blair said she saw a quiet and often unnoticed need in dealing with lymph reactions in cancer survivors, a relatively common complication following breast cancer.
“It can be real serious,” Blair said. “Sometimes people don’t know it’s a side effect until they get it.”
Surgeries to remove lymph nodes can cause havoc with the body’s natural drainage system. Sometimes the reaction doesn’t happen for years until something triggers it and then the body needs help to drain the excess fluids from the body.
Blair herself has suffered from lymphedema as a result of having lymph nodes removed. Two physical therapists in Corvallis work with patients to relieve the symptoms.
“Currently, there is not program funding for lymphedema education, prevention, treatment and garments (such as specialized bras, compression sleeves and bandages),” Blair said.
Blair said some insurance companies will cover physical therapy for lymphedema, but many will not help pay for the garments needed for treatment.
Blair’s donation will go to buying supplies such as compression sleeves and other garments for lymph patients.
In order to take advantage of the funds, cancer patience/survivors just need a referral from their primary care provider to Good Samartan Regional Medical Center’s Phyiscal Rehabilitation Department.
Everything that Blair has been through has left her with a deep sense of gratitude. She’s come to believe in the power of positive thought.
She still goes back for blood work and tests every three months, but so far has stayed in remission. Ava turned 2 this September.