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She Battled Blood Cancer While Pregnant. Meet the Incredible Village of People Who Helped Her Through It

She Battled Blood Cancer While Pregnant. Meet the Incredible Village of People Who Helped Her Through It

By Jaclyn Hawkins
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In the summer of 2015, Betsy Milburn noticed she was having trouble swallowing. She did what so many of us would do and chalked it up to daily life issues like allergies, sinus issues, or acid reflux. Then thought maybe it was hormone-related when she learned she was eight weeks pregnant. Then she felt the protrusion in her throat. 

One visit to her doctor and an ultrasound later, Betsy found out the cause of her swallowing issues: a tumor in her throat. Biopsies began, and while waiting for results, her cancer began to "spread like wildfire," she told me, moving from her throat and winding down to her heart and lungs. Within two weeks, Betsy was admitted to the hospital with a tennis ball-sized tumor that was crushing her windpipe. "Breathing was a challenge," she shared. "I was terrified about my baby in my womb and whether he was getting enough oxygen." 

Fast forward 27 weeks, Betsy gave birth to her little boy, Reid. "It's truly miraculous the way our bodies are designed to carry babies and how protected they are in the womb." Just two days postpartum, with Reid still in the NICU and her 4-year-old daughter at home, she began radiation treatments. The doctors eventually determined her cancer to be Primary Mediastinal Diffused Large B Cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that originates in cells of the immune system. 

What ensued for Betsy in the following year was a journey of extreme challenge and fortitude.  Three months after giving birth and receiving radiation treatments, she went in for a scan and learned she was pregnant again. "I cried because I was like, oh my gosh, I'm exhausted. I have a four-year-old, I have a three-month-old. I just finished up chemo and radiation," she said. "How am I going to have another baby?" Betsy charged forth and gave birth to her third child, Grady, in February 2017. 

And then her cancer came back. Besty spent 22 days in the hospital to harvest stem cells, receive a transplant, and resume chemotherapy. After these rounds of intense treatment, she was finally in remission. 

"If someone had told me ahead of time that I was going to go through all of this, I would think, there's no way I could survive that. But it's amazing what you can do when it's part of that maternal instinct. I wasn't just fighting for me. I was fighting for my children."  

When I interviewed Betsy, my jaw dropped hearing her story of her continued resilience in fighting blood cancer and birthing two babies. She told me she got through thanks to the support of her husband, her family, her faith in God, and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 

"While I was going through my treatment, my husband and my sister did a great job at trying to handle the paperwork on finding assistance and education and treatment options. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is one of the organizations available for financial assistance, educational resources for patients and caregivers, research, and patient advocacy," Betsy shared.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is the world's largest health nonprofit dedicated to funding blood cancer research and providing education and patient services. Rudolph and Antoinette de Villiers founded the organization in 1949 after they lost their 16-year-old son to leukemia.

Since its inception, LLS has invested over $1.7 billion in groundbreaking research to find lifesaving treatments for people diagnosed with cancer and offers support through financial assistance, education, and hope.

Every three minutes, a person is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma. That's why there's much more research to be done for blood cancers, but the research on LLS is providing more hope. In 2023 alone, there were seventeen new FDA-approved blood cancer treatments that LLS' investments and research helped to create. These approvals will not only save the lives of those diagnosed with blood cancers but will positively impact people dealing with other forms of cancer.

"Blood is easier to test than a tumor or organ, so as a result, we've discovered treatment options for other types of cancer and autoimmune diseases—this is going to help so many other people, not just blood cancer patients," said April Huff, LLS' Visionary of the Year Campaign Manager.

"We also know that, unfortunately, leukemia is the number one diagnosed cancer in children. LLS is standing with these children to make sure that they have a successful chance and improve their quality of life when they're diagnosed," she continued.  

To further support children impacted by these cancers, LLS has created the Dare to Dream Project to generate $175 million over the next five years to find safer and less toxic but effective treatments for children. Huff told me the organization is already halfway to reaching its goal. 

It's for these children and women like Betsy that I joined LLS' Visionary of the Year campaign. My grandfather was also diagnosed with leukemia, and I think it's safe to say that every single person has been impacted by cancer either through their own diagnosis, or a family member or friend's.

Advocating for our health isn't easy, so I asked Betsy for her advice. "If something in your body doesn't seem right, trust that it isn't right. I was stubborn whenever it meant going to the doctor, and thankfully, my sister kept saying, 'You need to go, you need to go.' It's so important to listen to your body, and early detection is key with any type of disease." She continued, "Please know there's hope through organizations like LLS that exist to help you and your family and caregivers."

This month is Cancer Awareness Month, so there's no better time than the present to schedule a check-up with your doctor. And as you know, no one is a greater champion for women's health than Maria Shriver herself. So on those days when pursuing your health may feel a little scared or lonely, just know that you have a host of women like Maria, like Betsy, like me who are cheering you on.

Betsy with two of her children.
Jaclyn Hawkins (third from right) with friends and fellows of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society including Jason, Molly, Jack, Lyla, Ellie, April, and Claire.

Jaclyn Hawkins is a digital marketing strategist and a home-grown Kentuckian. She's an advocate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. You can donate to her LLS Visionary of the Year campaign here where every dollar goes towards transforming cancer care. 

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