Sheila Downing was 17 weeks pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The 33-year-old from California had suddenly developed headaches and blind spots shortly after conceiving, and by 16 weeks she was breathing peculiarly at night, and was often disoriented.
With her diagnosis, doctors presented Sheila a heart-wrenching set of options: delay radiation therapy to protect the baby (risking her life), or try to save her own (putting her baby at risk of birth defects and developmental issues).
Sheila, with the support of her husband Joshua, opted for the former. Her doctors would try to remove as much of the tumor as possible, and induce birth as early as possible, to save the baby and start Sheila on radiation as soon as possible.
Painfully, her son, Josiah, was born in August with narrowed arteries – an unrelated condition – requiring heart surgery, and Sheila decided to delay her treatment even further so she could breastfeed him.
Finally, at the start of 2019, Sheila began on chemo and radiotherapy. She says she’s ‘taking each day as it comes’ but wouldn’t change anything.
Sheila Downing, 33, was forced to decide how to handle her brain tumor when she was 17 weeks pregnant with her second child. She opted for surgery, and delayed radiation therapy
Adorable: Little Josiah was born in August with a heart condition, unrelated to Sheila’s tumor, that required heart surgery at four days old. He is now thriving as Sheila starts treatment
Sheila’s rare oligodendroglioma tumor was large when doctors finally found it
‘Between mine and my son’s health, we are both doing great. I try to live one day at a time. If you worry about everything you won’t be able to enjoy today,’ Sheila said.
Sheila started getting headaches shortly after conceiving in December 2017, but she dismissed it as another mysterious and pesky side effect of pregnancy.
But by the end of February, it was intense. She was sleeping with an ice pack on her head, and her vision was clouding with auras and dark spots.
At the turn of March, it was clear something was wrong: Sheila had to pull over while driving home from nursery with her then-10-month-old daughter, Sophia, because she could barely see.
That night her husband, Joshua, said her breathing was off. When he woke her, she was disoriented and confused.
Joshua called an ambulance and Sheila had a seizure in the back of the ambulance, then another at the hospital.
On March 25, 2018, just after Sheila’s brain surgery, they celebrated Sophia’s first birthday (pictured). Pregnant and exhausted, Sheila had over 30 staples in her head, but she put on a smile and celebrated the day. They had a Wonder Woman theme. Sheila said she felt like Wonder Woman herself
WHAT ARE GLIOMA TUMOURS?
Gliomas are brain tumours starting in the glial cells, which are the supporting cells in the nervous system.
There are three types of gliomas; astrocytoma, oligodendroglioma and ependymoma.
The most common glioma are astrocytomas, which is found in the cells of the brain that support the nerve cells.
Gliomas can be low grade (slow growing) or high grade (fast growing), and doctors use these grades to determine what kind of treatment is needed.
Source: Cancer Research
An MRI was carried out at the hospital which revealed a tumor in the back, right side of Sheila’s brain.
At 17 weeks pregnant, Sheila was told she needed brain surgery, making her incredibly fearful for her unborn baby’s health.
On March 12, 2018, Sheila had a craniotomy to remove the tumor and her baby was monitored throughout the surgery.
At an appointment to remove her staples, doctors informed Sheila that she had a grade two slow-growing tumor, but she would have to wait until her son was born to receive treatment.
On August 8, 2018, Sheila welcomed her son Josiah who weighed 7lb 8oz.
Josiah was born with a coarctation of the aorta, which is a narrowing of the blood vessel carrying oxygen, requiring heart surgery at four days old.
Sheila should have started radiation immediately, but her sick son needed her, and she wanted to breastfeed him to aid his recovery, so she delayed treatment until January 2019.
‘I was excited to be pregnant again, but also nervous as I’d have two kids under two,’ said Sheila.
‘I remember gradually getting headaches around 12 weeks pregnant. At first, they seemed like a mild headache, but they became more intense and lasted longer.
‘They’d last a few hours, but within a week they’d last all day. Eventually they never went away.
‘At first the visual auras were just small dots in the top left of my eyesight, but eventually these auras became bigger and lasted longer.’
It seemed innocuous to Sheila, who thought she might be stressed or just reacting to hormonal changes.
She never expected a cancer diagnosis.
The tumor Sheila has is called oligodendroglioma, a rare, slow-growing tumor that is near-impossible to remove entirely.
Oligodendrogliomas account for two to five percent of all brain tumors, and occur primarily in adults over 40.
Sheila began treatment on January 3, 2019, taking a chemotherapy pill (Temodar) every day, one hour before radiation. For six weeks, Sheila had radiation done Monday through Friday every day, for a total of 30 treatments
Sheila, pictured shortly after her craniotomy at 17 weeks pregnant – delirious, scared and confused
‘I was so confused and scared,’ Sheila said.
‘I was 17 weeks pregnant, needing brain surgery. I didn’t know if my baby would be OK. I was so nervous about myself and my baby. Plus, I had another baby at home who wasn’t even quite a year old.
Sheila had surgery and after that I did great. She could walk, talk and eat.
‘The little things were so important because I was lucky to be alive,’ Sheila said.
‘After the surgery I rested as I couldn’t even lift my own child. I would sit on the floor and let her crawl into my lap since I couldn’t lift her. I felt so sad that I couldn’t physically take care of her like I did before.
‘On March 25, 2018 we celebrated my daughter’s first birthday. I had over 30 staples in my head, but I put on a smile and celebrated the day. We had a Wonder Woman theme which was quite funny because I felt like Wonder Woman myself.
When Sheila found out Josiah was sick, too, she postponed her treatment even further so she could breastfeed him (pictured shortly after Josiah’s birth)
‘For the next few months I focused on staying healthy as I wanted a safe delivery. I went for a follow up visit a few weeks after surgery to go over the results. I was probably about 19 weeks pregnant and I found out that I had a slow growing tumor.’
Sheila had to postpone treatment until her pregnancy was over for the safety of her son, but at 37 weeks pregnant, an ultrasound revealed her son would be born with a heart condition.
Josiah was born on August 8, 2018 and he was quickly taken to the NICU for assessments. Josiah had surgery when he was four days old and went home two weeks later.
‘I decided to wait for treatment because my child needed me. I focused on him and put my needs aside,’ said Sheila.
‘I thought that somehow my surgery and my tumor caused my son to have a heart condition. I thought it was my fault. Now I know that’s not the case.’
Sheila’s doctor agreed to let her wait at least three months so she could breastfeed her son.
‘I had to have constant follow up MRIs, but at the time I needed to be there for my baby. I wanted to breastfeed him and make him strong.
‘I continued with my follow ups and everything looked good, so we planned to start treatment in December.
‘December came and I began to wean my baby off breastfeeding then I got fitted for my radiation mask.’
Sheila began treatment on January 3, 2019, taking a chemotherapy pill (Temodar) every day, one hour before radiation.
For six weeks, Sheila had radiation done Monday through Friday every day, for a total of 30 treatments.
She now awaits results on how the treatment has worked, but her focus is on her babies.