When I started writing this blog almost 3 years ago it was with the intention to shine a light onto all the good and strong and brave that is happening around us. While I thought these stories would be a gift to my readers I never envisioned what a gift I was giving myself as well. Getting to know and featuring incredible people, non-profits, and businesses has invigorated me and giving me a renewed sense of faith in all things. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are living around me doing inspirational things every day. While I love a great start-up or a delicious recipe, my favorite thing to share is a story about a fighter, a person who has overcome the odds and come out better on the other side. That sentiment is what inspired me to start a new series called “Heroes Among Us”. I can’t wait regularly share with you all some true stories that will knock your socks off.
Today I want to introduce you to a superhero among. Welcome April Larken – mother, wife, daughter, survivor, and friend. Thank you for bravely sharing your story.
Q&A with April Larken, Superhero and Cancer Survivor
How did you discover you had cancer? Bad Cough, collapsed lungs? And what did it feel like when you got the diagnosis?
It was right after we got married and we wanted to have a baby but I had these nagging “asthma symptoms” that I couldn’t kick with the usual treatments (inhalers, medications, etc.). My shortness of breath was getting worse and I was wheezing constantly. I just thought my asthma was getting worse because it was allergies. Then my mom suggested that I get a chest X-ray so I could start treating the asthma correctly before I got pregnant. That’s what prompted me to get the X-ray. I remember thinking I’d leave work on my lunch hour to get the X-ray done quickly so I would be back before Vera [Wang] noticed I was missing!
They spotted (what would be) a cancerous growth in my bronchial passage and left lung. Then they immediately sent me to get a series of bronchoscopies and biopsies all over NYC. My husband, Jonathan, and I were both there in the doctor’s office holding hands when they told us the news that I would need a lung removed if I wanted to live. My first gut reaction was – you can live with only one lung? Then I went into shock and became terrified. Jonathan was incredible, he kicked into soldier mode in that minute. He took complete control over the entire situation. Here was a newlywed man facing something that men who are married for 30+ years should never have to face. His new wife was sick. He became the caregiver, the secretary, the emotional backbone, the accountant and the pillar of strength for me. He had a 5-inch thick file that he brought to every appointment. We met with dozens of specialists and he asked all the questions and scheduled all the tests, all the while acting calm while feeling completely overwhelmed. He was incredible. Looking back now I’m not surprised by how he handled it because 10 years later I know the man/father he is, but back then he surprised us all with what he was capable of.
The caregiver is the unsung hero here, the cancer patient becomes a piece of meat on the table – injected with medications and dyes, pushed through cat scan chambers day after day, biopsies, blood work, test after test – and it’s the caregiver that watches their loved one go through hell and feels helpless. The patient doesn’t even know what’s happening half the time (I became confused by it all) or the severity of it all. But the caregiver is up all night reading about medical case studies and clinical trials. The caregiver knows about “the worst case scenario” and that’s scary. Jo was brave for both of us.
What was the process like after diagnosis and where were you treated?
Our relationship with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center began on May 20th 2005. After several opinions from doctors in different NYC hospitals, the consensus was that the cancer had spread from my bronchus to the left lung and the obstruction had caused both lungs to collapse. I needed my operation as soon as possible.
We decided on Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the chief of thoracic surgery, Dr. Valerie Rusch, as she had come very highly recommended. My diagnosis was clear and precise, she was going to operate on the bronchus and lungs and attempt to remove the cancer by removing the left lung. She was optimistic that post-op I would be able to lead a normal life and could even one day fulfill my dream of becoming a mom.
I spent weeks at MSKCC bonding with other patients from all around the world that were also experiencing the fears and emotions that only a cancer patient knows. I attended support groups to help prepare me for the future and this made me feel comfortable and confident when I underwent an 8 hour surgery on June 25th 2005. Dr. Rusch and her team removed the bronchial tumor and the upper left lung, and in doing so were successful in removing all of the cancer. The next 11 months were spent in post-op treatments, cancer support groups, emotional, nutritional & physical therapy. The road to recovery was long but we felt continuous support on all levels from Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Today, I feel incredibly blessed to be a healthy and strong mommy for Ella (8) and Jasper (4) and will forever be thankful to God for the gift of motherhood. I look back on my experience at MSKCC with gratitude, I believe in the power of prayer and love celebrating life!
How did having cancer change your life for the better?
Having & surviving cancer at 30 was a curse that turned out to be a blessing. It changed my life in the best way possible. Before I got sick I was a very different person, a person that I didn’t like very much but didn’t know how to change. I was a typical New York City girl working crazy long hours, nights and weekends – in a rat race of competition never making time for my family or friends. I was always “too busy” for everything. I was aggressively chasing everything that didn’t matter, and was so wrapped up in my own accomplishments that I never made time to appreciate anyone else’s. In a nutshell I was selfish.
Then I spent a lot of time in a hospital bed thinking about my life and the choices I was making. I thought about the people that loved me and how their support had meant so much to me. I gained perspective. I wanted to be a better person – a kinder, more generous, less selfish person that would no longer take my life for granted. When I got well I looked at everything differently. I celebrated life more and worked less. I wanted to give my time to the people I loved. I wanted to give back. And I promised myself that I would never again let life become so busy that I would stop feeling the way I did when I first overcame cancer – grateful and blessed!
Because I started this battle wanting a baby, I was determined to make that happen. I had 1 out of a dozen doctors tell me that I could “maybe” become a mom one day after cancer, and I was holding on to that one maybe for dear life. My sister had agreed to be our surrogate but thanks to medicine, we didn’t need to go through with that plan. One year after having cancer I got pregnant with Ella. I was able to carry her to full term and although I was high risk, I had a pretty healthy pregnancy. We got our second miracle when Jasper came 4 years later. Wow! 1 lung and 2 healthy babies!
There’s something about having babies when you didn’t think you could that makes you appreciate motherhood in a totally different way. Yes of course my kids can drive me nuts at times (I’m only human and they have me outnumbered!) but every day that I hear their little voices or watch them sleep in their beds I thank God for this incredible gift I’ve been given. We never know how long our lives will last or how long we will be together – so I try to stop once in a while and appreciate this moment, right here, right now, the one I’m living today. That’s what surviving cancer gave me and that will stay with me forever.
Amen April! Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us all of just how precious life truly is.