Keeping Up Hope
If little Rysing Trupin hears anything growing up, she'll hear this: She was a very wanted baby.
So wanted, in fact, that her mother, Seattle resident Hope Hundley, said no to undergoing four months of chemotherapy when it was recommended to treat aggressive breast cancer in 2010. Determined to preserve her fertility from the ravages of chemotherapy, which often leaves women unable to conceive or carry a baby to term, Hundley opted instead for a mix of Eastern and Western medicine to treat her disease.
According to the American Cancer Society's report, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2013-2014, approximately 11,000 women of childbearing age are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States. A high percentage of those undergo chemotherapy and become infertile as a result. Studies show that more and more young women, like Hundley, are opting for alternative treatments – including Chinese herbs, meditation, diet changes and other approaches – to kill their cancer while keeping their hope for a baby alive.
While Hundley has always had faith in alternative approaches to health, she knew that 1,000 of those 11,000 women under 40 diagnosed with breast cancer die. And those odds made opting out of chemotherapy, the allopathic medical treatment best known to eradicate cancer, difficult.
"It was overwhelming, and what I was left with was an incredible surge of fear," says Hundley. "I was told that without chemo, I had a 30 percent chance of a cancer recurrence, and if it came back, they would consider it untreatable. With chemo, that number dropped to 10 percent."
Hundley's journey from cancer to motherhood started, literally, when she moved to Seattle to focus all her energy on starting a family. She was 39 and ready to be a mother after years of pouring herself into her work as a clinical social worker on behalf of struggling kids. Just before leaving Los Angeles to join her fiancé in the Northwest, she had a mammogram – one she fully expected to show yet another noncancerous cyst. She'd had many of them.
"I've got dense tissue and it was never anything before. I really didn't think about it."
The diagnosis of cancer came one week after stepping off the plane in Seattle.
"I remember sitting in the room with my fiancé as Dr. David Byrd said the word ‘cancer' and continued to talk about treatment and surgery options, as if he had just diagnosed the flu," she recalls. "My head started to spin. I started to tear. My chief concern was what all of this meant in terms of my ability to conceive, given that we were already in the midst of trying."
An appointment with a fertility specialist at the University of Washington was quickly set up, a meeting where Hundley was told that at 39, chemotherapy would likely throw her into menopause and that freezing her eggs (provided they could harvest any) was her only option for having biological children.
"I don't have the words to describe my devastation. I was sobbing by the end of that appointment. I had said good-bye to my community, moved to a new city where I knew no one other than my fiancé and left my career with the sole goal of actualizing my dream of starting a family."
Hundley also met with University of Washington researcher Dr. Mary-Claire King, whose research helped to identify the BRCA1 gene responsible for inherited susceptibility to breast cancer. Testing revealed Hundley was not BRCA1 positive – the first good news she'd heard in weeks.
However, surgery revealed that while the tumor had not spread outside the breast, it was an aggressive form of the cancer. The oncologists recommended a heavy dose of chemotherapy followed by radiation.
Finding an Alternative
Desperate for alternatives, Hundley contacted a longtime friend and spiritual counselor. She was soon led to Dr. Jeffrey Yuen, a well-known Taoist master and Chinese master herbalist. Yuen explained that, from the point of view of Chinese medicine, all illness was an invitation to change.
"He prescribed herbs and turned my diet upside down," Hundley says. "Dr. Yuen knew that I wanted to be free of the cancer and whatever caused it, and that I wanted a child. He assured me that both were possible. So I had made up my mind to forego chemo, but I promised Dr. Byrd that I would commit to radiation as well."
The decision was emotionally tumultuous.
"I was anything but certain that the path I was choosing for treatment was the right one … I knew very little about Chinese medicine," Hundley says. "I was grateful that this renowned healer was willing to take me on, but my life was at stake. Could he really help me through diet and herbs?"
At the same time she felt intuitively that four months of chemotherapy was not the answer.
After Surgery and Radiation
Because she had not undergone chemotherapy, Hundley added acupuncture treatments to her regimen and underwent two In Vitro Fertilization procedures to increase her chances of conception less than a year after the surgery and radiation. Both procedures were unsuccessful and Yuen counseled Hundley against IVF. He refocused her herbal program toward building up her post-cancer strength and releasing the fear she carried about not being able to conceive.
She trusted Yuen's assurances. She conceived, but the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. But neither she nor Yuen were ready to give up. Just months after the miscarriage and starting a reformulated blend of herbs, in November 2013, Hundley learned she was pregnant again.
"I was terrified that this second pregnancy would also end in a miscarriage," she says. "I was 41 years-old now and had put my body through a lot in a short amount of time. I didn't tell anyone outside of my husband until we were past the first trimester and all of our genetic testing was in the clear."
When she learned her baby would be a girl, Hundley recalls, "I was flying with excitement. She was really coming!"
Hundley's story found its way to Joy Huber, author of Cancer with Joy, a book and website (www.cancerwithjoy.com) dedicated to helping those diagnosed with cancer stay positive throughout their experience. Huber's article about Hundley's journey from cancer to motherhood was read by thousands at Huffington Post earlier this year.
The Birth of Her Daughter
Rysing Sarai was born Aug. 22, 2013 at Swedish Medical Center, surrounded by (electric) candles and music and a doula who was also a breast cancer survivor.
"There was so much healing in that room," Hundley recalls. "Rysing came out at 6:14 a.m. crying, and then settled on my stomach as she locked onto my eyes. It was magical. My heart was wide open and I was flooded with emotion. This little being that I had always envisioned was here."
She had created a long and packed playlist of music for her daughter's birth – not one song was repeated in the 27 hours of her labor. When Rysing made her appearance, George Benson's song Star of the Story floated up around the mother and baby.
Come to me, let me be
Part of all the love you are ...
... hold me, all through the night
Stay till the day is bright
And angel don't ever break the spell
Cause you're the star of a story, I love so well
Hundley laughed when she realized what was playing:
"It was such the perfect song!"
Sometimes Hundley finds herself thinking of other young women facing the threat of infertility after cancer.
"I want to encourage them to choose a path which anchors them in the belief that their own healing is possible, whether it be through chemotherapy, radiation or some form of complementary medicine," she says. "I want to remind them that while others have stared down the barrel of cancer, it is always a deeply personal experience and only they can determine the route that feels life affirming."