Ben Hanan sees life through the lens of his video camera. He’s a storyteller, one whose films will bring you to tears and fill you with hope all at the same time. (His film The Cost of Freedom tells the tale of a father saying goodbye to his newborn baby as he leaves to fight overseas.)
But now, Ben has his own story to tell, and it starts with his wife, Sarah, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was seven months pregnant with their first baby.
“Instantly you start thinking, what does this mean for our future? Does this mean we’re going to have to choose between her or the baby?” Ben tells Health in a recent interview. “That’s the first thought: Well, are we going to be able to keep this baby? Are we going to be able to keep [Sarah]? Are we going to have to make that choice and say, no we want to keep this baby and let [Sarah] have a lesser chance of survival?”
After he shared a photo of Sarah and their nebown baby on Reddit, the post began to go viral. Ben, who is 27, explains how the story really started: After being married for almost three years, he and Sarah, 29, decided they were ready to have their first child. It felt like everything was falling into place. They had just bought a house outside of Minneapolis, a duplex to be exact, and they felt ready for the next chapter in their marriage. In May 2018, they got the best news of their lives: Sarah was pregnant.
Seven months later, however, she found a lump in her breast. At first, she assumed it was just another normal bodily change that went along with pregnancy (you know, like swollen feet or achy joints). But she soon learned that wasn’t the case. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 2A breast cancer. The cancer hadn’t spread to other parts of her body, but it needed to be treated right away.
“It sounds like a cliché, but there’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that,” Ben says. “You think it’s something that would never happen to you. It’s just something that happens to people in general. But it doesn’t work that way.”
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed during pregnancy, affecting about 1 in every 3,000 women who are pregnant, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. While treatment largely depends on the type of breast cancer, there’s still much debate around whether chemo on a pregnant woman will have long-term effects on the baby. That’s the decision Ben and Sarah had to make: Start chemo right away and improve Sarah’s chances of survival, or wait until the baby was born so the baby’s health couldn’t be at risk.
“We debated a lot about starting chemo before the baby was born,” Ben says. “Out of all of the doctors we talked to, and we talked to quite a few, none of them had any serious concerns that it would affect the baby, so we just kind of had to choose to trust.”
Sarah decided to go through two rounds of chemo before her due date. On the day she started chemo, her doctor found out that her tumor had grown from 2.5 to 4.4 centimeters since her diagnosis, which was only about 20 days earlier.
“Coming to terms with the hair loss that will happen, the inability to breastfeed after the baby is born (because of the chemo), and many other things was a struggle for her,” Ben wrote in a blog post a few days after Sarah started chemo. “Emotionally it was and will be a roller-coaster over the next 6 months or longer. But we keep seeing more of God’s plan.” Faith has helped Ben and Sarah make room for a positive light through this dark experience.
Pregnancy is hard enough as it is, and adding chemo to the equation means even more exhaustion, nausea, and irritability than usual. It could also drain Sarah and Ben of the money they had been saving for their new baby. While Ben takes all of this extremely seriously, he tries his best to focus on other things—like that the experience has actually made their marriage stronger than ever and has even rekindled old friendships that had faded over the years.
“There are a lot of people with sadder stories than ours,” Ben says, though he admits it’s been much easier to maintain that positive attitude now that the baby has been born.
On January 14, just after 6 in the morning, Noah Benjamin Hanan came into the world, healthy as can be. “It’s just surreal,” Ben says. “Everyone always says it’s indescribable, but it really is magical to see this new person appear in front of you. It’s pretty amazing that my wife has the opportunity to raise a person who can hopefully see life they way we do after they go through hard things.”
Her support system may have gained a new member, but Sarah’s battle with cancer isn’t over. She’ll start chemo again in a few days and will be undergoing genetic testing to determine if mastectomy is the best option. Doctors will also test her to gauge her risk of developing other types of cancer, which could change the direction of treatment.
“So it’s possibly a complicated future decision tree. Nobody really knows for sure,” Ben wrote in a blog post the day Noah was born.
Regardless of what happens next, Ben is a storyteller at heart, and he knows it’s important to share his family’s experience to help others. “I think hope is real. I think it was given to us for a reason… Things have a reason for happening, I don’t believe the universe is just chaos and random. We’ve already seen that in our lives. It had a reason for happening, whether we like the methodology that got us there or not. I believe everything has a reason, and I’m excited to see what that reason is.”
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