In early 2012 (Feb 7th to be exact), at 29 years old, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer called Choriocarcinoma. The cancer was caused by my pregnancy and the way that this cancer works is that the pregnancy hormone (HcG) carries the cancer cells through the body at the rate of a pregnancy. Normal HcG levels for a few weeks pregnant are around 10,000 and mine were at 284,000. Two days later they had jumped to 500,000 – the highest ever seen in Ottawa. I had tumors in my lung, spleen, and uterus. I was exclusively breastfeeding my three month old and was given less than 48 hours to wean him before I would start extremely aggressive weekly treatments of chemotherapy for the next 5 months.
My sister stepped in to nurse him for me as he was not taking a bottle well. I assumed I would have to put him on formula because I didn’t know of any other options until my sister suggested donor milk. I had never even heard of donating breast milk but that sparked a search for milk for my baby to see if I could find friends and family who could donate some breast milk to my little guy. I did find a few but it wasn’t nearly enough for the amount he was drinking so I expanded my search to friends of friends which eventually led me to facebook groups like “Human Milk 4 Human Babies Eastern Ontario” https://www.facebook.com/HM4HB.EasternON which is a milk sharing group. Essentially healthy nursing moms who have an abundance of milk post on the page with the amount of milk they are offering (whether frozen or fresh) and where they are located. At the same time, women like me who are unable to nurse for a host of different reasons ranging from illness, to lack of milk production, to adoption, etc are able to post requests for milk. The moms connect and ask questions about medical history etc and make an informed decision as to whether or not they would like to take the milk.
Through the generosity of these selfless women I was able to provide my son with breast milk for 9 months while I underwent weekly chemo treatments. One of the most impressive donations I received was a freezer full of milk from a woman over 5 hours away and it was delivered to me by complete strangers who delivered it all in coolers. Another woman spent weeks collecting milk for me from a group she was a part of and drove it all to me herself from several hours away – it too filled my large chest freezer.
I can’t tell you what it meant to me to be able to give my son nourishing breast milk instead of formula. It really took a weight off my shoulders at a time when I needed as much stress off of me as possible. Every single woman who either donated or brought the milk to me was a gift from heaven.
I was able to get pregnant a year after finishing chemo and though it resulted in a seriously high risk pregnancy in which my placenta grew right through my uterus and we both nearly died (yeah that happened), my baby, although 7 weeks premature, is extremely healthy and as a precaution I filled my entire chest freezer with my breastmilk – just in case. I was hoping to donate it to a mom in need and give back in some small way. I was really hoping in the back of my mind that I’d be able to help a fellow mom who was going through something like what I had gone through. Never would I or could I have imagined…
On June 10th 2014, exactly 2 years to the day after that wonderful woman with the pro breastfeeding stickers all over her car had collected all that milk for me and dropped it off from 2 & ½ hours away, I found out that she had just been diagnosed with cancer – and was also pregnant. In a very odd twist, I was now in her position and she was in mine. I jumped at the chance to help her collect milk as she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed her baby and through 10 different women (and help from Jesus of course) I’ve been able to fill 2 freezers completely full of milk! I’m also working on raising $1000 for her because I know from experience how much financial help is necessary during cancer. My husband will be driving both freezers and all the milk to her on Sunday.
The reason I’m telling this story is because I really want to bring awareness to the fact that more breast milk donors are needed. There’s a new milk bank in Ontario but they are woefully short on milk and of course the milk goes to the hospitals first to nourish the preemies and extremely sick babies. When my 7 week premature son was in the hospital he was approved for the milk donor program and the milk he received was from Ohio! There is simply not enough awareness here in Canada.
Those of us with healthy babies who are unable to breastfeed for whatever reason are left to figure out alternative methods that include formula feeding (no thanks) or trusting fellow mamas with their generous milk donations. Is there a risk to using unpasteurized milk from another mom? Of course! But clearly it’s a risk tons of women are willing to make and if there were simply more women willing to donate to the milk banks perhaps women like us wouldn’t have to take these kinds of risks. The milk bank is very easy to donate to – you simply need to do a short phone survey, get some blood work done, and store the milk. They even pay to have it shipped to them and provide the bottles, etc! http://www.milkbankontario.ca
I look forward to the day when anyone unable to breastfeed can go to a milk bank and receive milk for their baby for free. Until then, I will work hard to spread awareness about the need for donor milk and for now will keep working on collecting #Milk4Bridget because going through cancer is enough; no one should have to worry about how to feed their baby on top of that.