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Austin mom celebrates Mother's Day after spending baby's first years in cancer treatment

After cancer diagnosis, mom missed new daughter's milestones, but her eyes were on the future

Last August, Sydney Townsend celebrated finishing her cancer treatments with her daughter Maxine, who was 3 months old when Townsend was diagnosed with leukemia.

Sydney Townsend thought of herself as a healthy person. When she was 39 weeks pregnant with her daughter Maxine, three years ago, she was still teaching boxing. 

But three months into Maxine's life, Townsend, 39, didn't feel right. "Of course, I was tired," she says. "I thought that was being a new mom." 

It hurt, though, to lift Maxine.

The first doctor she saw about her back pain told her to take some ibuprofen.

Then Townsend saw a resident, who listened to Townsend and scheduled an MRI that day. Before Townsend got back to her work desk from the MRI appointment, she got a call from the resident, who said that something was really wrong. She needed to get a blood test and see an oncologist that day. 

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"There's just some mistake," she thought. "New moms can't have cancer."

"I had just come off of maternity leave," she says. "I thought my biggest challenge would be how to pump (breast milk) during work hours. Now it was 'How am I going to stay alive?' Work stopped." 

Townsend had acute leukemia that had caused 20 vertebrae to fracture. 

Just before treatment began, Sydney Townsend looked like a healthy new mom.

In the first three years of Maxine's life, Townsend had to rethink her plan for motherhood. She had to stop nursing. She handed off every part of parenting to her husband, her parents and friends. 

Townsend's diagnosis often happens to people who are seemingly healthy.

"When I'm called to see patients with acute leukemia that is a new diagnosis, I always get a pit in my stomach," Dr. Kathryn Hudson at Texas Oncology says. "I'm about to walk into a room of a patient that is young and previously healthy. I'm about to turn her world upside down."

Hudson, who is Townsend's doctor and who was visibly pregnant with her third child at the time, dreaded going into Townsend's room even more. She says she was aware that her own pregnancy could be triggering for someone going through cancer, especially someone who just learned her daughter's first year of life wasn't going to go as planned. 

Townsend, though, didn't see it that way. Hudson being a mom connected them. 

At the end of June 2018, Maxine was able to visit Sydney Townsend in the hospital as Townsend started treatment.

"She really, really understood me and what was on the line for me and how difficult and poignant each step was for me and how badly I wanted to get back to my daughter," Townsend says. 

"We all knew what we were working toward," Hudson says. It made her "hyper-focused on doing the best I can so that we can have her be a wonderful mom to Maxine."

Hudson doesn't believe Townsend's pregnancy and childbirth had anything to do with her cancer diagnosis, though sometimes cancer is caught in pregnancy or just after because women are having more doctor's visits and more blood tests. 

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Townsend thought she would just do a little chemotherapy and be back at work. She could not have imagined what the next three years of therapy would entail. "It was so earth-stopping," she says.

Hudson says it's too much to tell patients at the beginning that this is going to be at least three years of treatment. "It's too overwhelming," she says. Instead, she takes a patient through each treatment as it comes. 

Hudson could see how strong Townsend was, not just physically, but mentally. "Right from the beginning, she told me, 'Tell me what I have to do and I'm going to do it.'  ... She was able to tackle this head on. I was amazed by her." 

Shortly after beginning treatment, Sydney Townsend began wearing scarfs after her hair fell out from chemotherapy.

The day after celebrating her family's first Father's Day, Townsend checked into the hospital for the first of what would be dozens of rounds of chemotherapy: eight intensive in-the hospital rounds and 24 monthly out-patient rounds. 

Townsend's treatment included a clinical trial through MD Anderson, administered by Hudson, to do more rounds of chemotherapy instead of a bone marrow transplant. 

The first rounds of hospitalized chemo meant being away from Maxine. All the new colds babies bring with them would have been a danger to Townsend. At one point, Townsend went five weeks without seeing her daughter. Other times, Townsend saw her once a week. Once, they snuck Maxine into the hospital to see Townsend. Townsend figured out how to continue to be in Maxine's life through video chats.

Once, Townsend's family snuck Maxine into Sydney's hospital room.

When Townsend lost her hair from chemotherapy, she worried that her daughter wouldn't recognize her. She bought a wig, but when she got home, Maxine pulled off the wig in two seconds. "She couldn't have cared less," Townsend says. 

That first time Townsend was able to be home, "I didn't feel like her mom," she says. "My back was still very broken and I couldn't get out of bed. I could hear them playing down the hall and I didn't even want to go there. Who am I to her?"

This idea of having three months of doing everything for Maxine while on maternity leave and now not being able to carry her, "it was really hard to let that go," Townsend says. 

Even when Townsend was able to be at home, sometimes they had to keep Maxine away from her because of the risk of infection. Townsend's parents moved in with her to care for their daughter. Family friends moved into her parent's house and took care of Maxine there. Those friends became Maxine's Fairly Odd Parents, and they've now turned Townsend's diagnosis day into the annual Fairly Odd Parents Day. 

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Maxine's day care also helped out by filming things like the first time Maxine rolled over. They also let Townsend and her husband know things, such as when it was time for Maxine to start solid foods or wear shoes for the first time. 

The hardest part for Townsend was not the chemo; it was the letting go. "I'm a high achiever and suddenly I had almost no control," she says. She describes it as the "ultimate Zen training. I have to be here now. I can't worry about next year, next week or even tomorrow." 

Yet, she did worry. She worried that she wouldn't make it through the first six months. "What would I be even if I made it? To her, would I be an accessory person? I'm happy to report, she thinks of me as Mom." 

One thing that was very important to Sydney Townsend was celebrating some of the milestones with her daughter and husband Brian Bledsoe, such as the first solid foods for Maxine.

Townsend knew this to be true the first time Maxine chose to come to her instead of the other adults in her life, and the first time Maxine was sick and clung to her instead of someone else.

Having both grandparents and Fairly Odd Parents who have helped raise Maxine has made her a more flexible person, Townsend says. "She's confident. She grew up with a wider base of family than a lot of kids get."

Townsend had to strengthen her body to be able to do all the things moms do. It was hard to admit that it wasn't safe to be alone with her child because she couldn't lift her.

A year and a half after diagnosis Townsend was able to lift Maxine in and out of a crib again. She trained with a physical therapist to do so. Before that, she would rock Maxine to sleep and then text her husband to put Maxine to bed. 

Even today, as her daughter's turning 3, Townsend says, "I can do everything, but not all the things today."

She's honest with Maxine about when she needs to put her down, though she might hide how badly it hurts. 

As Maxine was turning one, she and her mom Sydney Townsend were both trying to grow their hair in.

Her back and her body will never be the same. She continues to do physical therapy and works out every day. "The baby workouts that used to be a warmup is my full workout now," she says. "I focus on what I can do more than what I can't do ...  to be grateful for what my body can do," Townsend says.

It is confusing to Townsend that she used to be 5-foot-10-inches, but lost 3 inches in height. There are high shelves and fan chains she can no longer reach. 

She and Maxine look at pictures of the time when Mommy was bald. "She likes to play doctor. She said, 'Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a doctor.'"

Every once in a while, there are reminders of what she missed when friends with new babies talk about what their babies are doing. "We were having different experiences," Townsend says.

She made it, though, and her experience is going to help other people with cancer. In April, Townsend went back to work. She is the Texas director of telehealth visits for Texas Oncology, which is similar to what she was doing at Ascension Seton before she got sick.

"It's another life shift," she says. "I was a mom, then a professional patient for so long. ... Before I could guess or imagine the patient perspective. Now I have the patient perspective." 

Nicole Villalpando writes about health care for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.