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Oakdale woman, daughter survive cancer during pregnancy
Benefit planned to allay medical costs
They call them warriors, the people with cancer. They are men and women who battle their own bodies and often undergo terrifying surgeries and difficult treatments in the fight to stay alive.
Amy Tillges Hejny, 33, is a breast cancer warrior, but she didn’t fight her battle alone.
Last August, everything was going great for Amy and Justin Hejny. The Oakdale couple had recently returned to Minnesota after five years in North Carolina, Justin, a chiropractor, had just opened his own practice in Spring Lake Park, and Amy was five months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
And then life, as it so often does, took a different course.
In August, Amy found a lump under her armpit. She discussed it with her obstetrician, who recommended a biopsy. Amy, thinking the lump was just an unusual part of pregnancy, wasn’t overly concerned. The lump was biopsied - twice. Both results were the same.
At five months pregnant, Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The battle begins
Being diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy isn’t as uncommon as one might think. Breast cancer is detected in about 1 in every 3,000 pregnant women, according to the American Cancer Society. What was unusual in Amy’s case was where her cancer was found. Her cancer wasn’t in her breast, but had moved through “walls” or boundaries of her body and implanted itself in her armpit.
Because she was pregnant, doctors were afraid to perform an MRI using dye to look for more cancer, fearing it would harm the fetus. Without MRI results, the doctors didn’t know exactly where the cancer had spread.
“We were kind of in the dark,” Justin recalls.
What the doctors did know was that the cancer was invasive and spreading fast. They wanted to start care immediately. Surgery had to be postponed until after the baby was born, so Amy’s only option was whole body treatment: chemotherapy.
For a long time it was thought that chemotherapy was dangerous to the fetus, but studies have shown that many chemotherapy drugs do not increase the risk of birth defects if administered during the second or third trimester, according to the American Cancer Society. Amy was in her second trimester when she started receiving chemo, and the treatment went about as well as it could. To keep herself and her baby healthy, she balanced traditional medical treatments with natural supplements, which she says improved her feeling of wellness.
“She has such strong health habits that I think (it) made a great big difference as far as how she felt,” Amy’s aunt Bev Tillges says.
For Amy, what was more difficult than the physical battle was the mental and emotional one.
Amy, who is originally from North St. Paul and attended Tartan High School, was grateful that she and Justin moved back to Minnesota when they did. “I’m glad to be back in the community I grew up in just for that support,” she says.
Justin went to as many of Amy’s appointments as he could during her care, but with his chiropractic practice just getting off the ground, the couple decided it wasn’t practical for him to go to all of her appointments.
That’s when Amy’s friends and family - nicknamed “Amy’s Army” on her YouCaring page - stepped in. They were there for her when she needed them, especially during chemotherapy treatments. “Someone was always with me,” she says.
Even when Amy felt most alone, she always had someone with her who was going through almost the same experiences: her unborn daughter. For Amy, whose cancer battle was largely mental and emotional rather than physical, the presence of the baby made all the difference.
“She was my little team member,” Amy says. She recalls her daughter kicking during chemotherapy treatments: it wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was reassuring.
“She was my little guiding light to get through it all,” Amy says.
‘Miracle baby’ with her mom’s warrior spirit
It’s unusual for women to describe childbirth as a “break,” but that’s what it was for Amy.
Halfway through her chemotherapy treatment, Amy stopped receiving chemo to give birth to her daughter, Tilia.
Tilia was born six weeks early. “She was a little fighter wanting to get out,” Amy says.
Shortly after the delivery, doctors informed Amy that Tilia’s umbilical cord had been tied in a true knot. It’s not uncommon for the umbilical cord to become tangled, but a true knot is rare and can pose serious problems for the fetus. If the knot is tight enough, it can cut off the supply of nutrients to the fetus, resulting in the baby being stillborn.
Doctors told Amy that Tilia’s cord was so thick - the life-giving connection between mother and daughter so strong - that the knot couldn’t cut off the supply of nutrients.
“She’s just kind of a little miracle baby,” Amy says.
Because she was premature, Tilia spent 12 days in the neonatal intensive care unit for monitoring. Now 5 months old, Tilia is a happy, healthy little girl who only stops smiling when a parent has to wipe her nose.
Eight months after she was first diagnosed, Amy is well on her way to becoming a cancer survivor. After giving birth in November, she resumed her chemotherapy treatments in early December. She concluded her chemo in March after 12 weeks of treatment.
In March and April, she underwent two surgeries to remove all of the stage 1 and stage 0 cancer cells that doctors found in her armpit.
Though she still goes in for post-surgery follow-ups, Amy is gradually finding her way back to the “new normal.” She’s even gone back to work part-time as a chiropractic assistant in her husband’s office.
Cancer and babies are expensive, meaning that medical costs quickly skyrocketed for the young couple during Amy’s illness.
Thankfully, Amy’s Army is once again stepping in to help the family, and this time, they’re reaching out to the community to support the cause.
Expanding Amy’s Army
On Saturday, May 17, Amy’s Army is hosting a benefit for Amy to help relieve the financial burden of her medical care.
The spaghetti dinner fundraiser will take place at North St. Paul American Legion Post 39 clubrooms in North St. Paul on Saturday, May 17, from 2 to 8 p.m. Admission is $20 and includes the cost of dinner. Other events include a silent auction, kiddie carnival and performance by Minneapolis-based singer and “The Voice” contender Tim Mahoney.
Tillges, who is organizing the event with six other women, has been surprised by the generosity of the community and local businesses, which have donated everything from a 10-person boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka to Twins tickets to a handheld leaf blower for the silent auction.
“The gifts that we got back were way more than we expected,” Tillges says. “People are just so gracious, especially the community businesses.”
A March fundraiser at Larkin Dance Studio raised $6,000 for the couple, and donations from people on Amy’s YouCaring page brought in another $7,000.
The couple hopes this event will be just as successful, though Amy adds that “anything and everything will help, and we appreciate that.”
More than a fundraiser, Amy hopes the event can be a celebration of the end of her cancer battle.
“I want to make (the benefit) more of a celebration,” she says. “I feel like I’m on the other side of the journey and I’m ready to celebrate and move forward with it all.”
For more information about the benefit, visit the Amy Hejny Benefit page on www.youcaring.com.
Kaylin Creason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7825.