Six days before Mother’s Day, 2-year-old twin brothers Ben and Fitz Bradley motored happily around a Beaumont Hospital pediatric playroom on feet-fueled plastic vehicles, unaware of the daunting hurdles that were cleared to make their births possible.
In 2019, as the twins’ parents — Melissa and Joshua — were working on starting a family, Melissa was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer — a disease that predominantly strikes women at a much more advanced age.
Following the guidance of Corewell Health oncologist Dr. Zaid Al-Wahab, Bradley underwent surgery to remove an ovary and a fallopian tube before enduring a five-month chemotherapy program.
Not only was Melissa’s life threatened by the hard-to-detect cancer, the diagnosis often precedes the complete removal of the patient’s reproductive organs, erasing the opportunity to bear children.
Good news emerges
During the surgery, a sliver of good news emerged: The spread of the cancer did not require a radical hysterectomy, allowing for the pre-chemo harvesting and preservation of Melissa’s eggs by Corewell Health reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Ahmad Hammoud.
Fast forward to 2020, when the Bradleys received the green light to begin invitro fertilization.
Weeks later, while eating lunch together at home, the Bradleys received a life-enhancing phone call.
“With IVF, you usually find out the results with a phone call to see if the procedure was positive or negative,” Melissa said.
“When I found out it was positive, I broke down immediately. Thankfully, my husband and I were together when we got the news.
“I was shocked and excited, but also nervous because twin pregnancies are high risk, so for me, it was high risk after high risk. Thankfully, it all worked out.”
Blessing after blessings
What advice would Melissa offer want-to-be mothers who are blind-sided by a daunting cancer diagnosis at a young age?
“I’d tell them to advocate for themselves,” she said. “Even if you’ve lost some reproductive organs like I did, there are other options. Women can look at my story and find hope.”
The Bradleys celebrated their first Mother’s Day following the twins’ birth by participating in the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance’s annual 5K walk fundraising awareness event in Ann Arbor — a tradition they plan to continue Sunday.
Tired, but happy
Melissa’s recovery is progressing wonderfully, she said.
“I’m tired, but that’s to be expected when you’re the mother of two-year-old twins, you’re pregnant and you’re in graduate school,” she said, smiling.
A teacher for seven years after graduating from the University of Michigan (Joshua also graduated from the U of M), Melissa is pursuing a career-changing degree in social work so that she can pay forward her appreciation for the guidance she has received from health-care professionals during the past rollercoaster-esque four years.
“I want to be a therapist for people who are going through what I went through,” Melissa said.
“I feel fortunate that I’m able to spread awareness and inspire other women to listen to their bodies.”
Dr. Al-Wahab said the long-term prognosis for ovarian cancer patients is often daunting because it is such a difficult cancer to detect — although great strides have been made over the past five or six years in treating the disease and extending the long-term life expectancy of patients.
“There are no screenings available and the possible symptoms — upset stomach or bloating are two — are often passed over,” he said.
“So when the cancer is diagnosed, it’s usually at an advanced stage.”
‘Listen to your body’
Dr. Al-Wahab encourages women to listen to their bodies.
“If symptoms don’t resolve in a short period of time, tell your doctor,” he advised. “No matter where they are in their health-0care journey, I tell my patients, ‘I will fight with you every step of the way.’”
At some point in the next few years, Bradley will arrange to have her reproductive organs removed to reduce the risk of recurrence, and her health-care team will monitor her for life.
“Before us, there were no successful embryo transfers in anyone with my subset of ovarian cancer,” Bradley said. “If sharing my story inspires hope in someone who needs to hear it, I’ll have accomplished what I set out to do.”
As she spoke, her two mini-miraculous blessings motored around the playroom as their parents were interviewed by various media professionals.
Someday, once their sons are old enough to grasp the gravity of the hurdles they’ve cleared, Melissa and Joshua Bradley will have quite the touching story to share with Fitz and Ben.
Thank you to Corewell Health Communications Professional Maryanne Macleod for assisting with this article.