Sheila Downing was 17 weeks pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
California, 33, had suddenly developed headaches and blind spots shortly after conception, and by 16 weeks she was breathing particularly at night and was often disoriented.
With her diagnosis, the doctors presented Sheila with a series of heartbreaking options: delay radiotherapy to protect the baby (risk his life) or try to save his (exposing his baby to the risk of birth defects and development).
Sheila, with the support of her husband Joshua, opted for the first. His doctors were trying to remove as much tumor as possible and to cause the birth as soon as possible to save the baby and start Sheila under irradiation as soon as possible.
Sadly, his son, Josiah, was born in August with narrowed arteries – an unrelated ailment – requiring an operation of the heart, and Sheila decided to postpone further treatment so that she could breastfeed.
Finally, in early 2019, Sheila began her chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She says that she "takes it every day as it comes" but would not change anything.
Sheila Downing, 33, was forced to decide how to manage her brain tumor while she was 17 weeks pregnant with her second child. She opted for surgery and delayed radiotherapy
Adorable: The little Josiah was born in August with a heart disease not related to the tumor of Sheila, which required a heart operation to four days. It is now booming as Sheila begins treatment
The rare tumor of Sheila oligodendroglioma was important when the doctors finally found it
"Between my health and that of my son, we are doing very well. I'm trying to live one day at a time. If you care about everything you can not enjoy today, "Sheila said.
Sheila started having headaches soon after conceiving, in December 2017, but she dismissed it as another mysterious and pesky side effect of pregnancy.
But at the end of February, it was intense. She slept with a bag of ice on her head and her vision was darkened with auras and dark spots.
By the end of March, it was clear that something was wrong: Sheila had to park on her way home with her 10-month-old daughter, Sophia, because she could barely see.
That night, her husband, Joshua, said that his breathing was interrupted. When he woke her, she was disoriented and confused.
Joshua called an ambulance and Sheila had a seizure at the back of the ambulance and then another at the hospital.
On March 25, 2018, just after Sheila's brain operation, they celebrated Sophia's first birthday (photo). Pregnant and exhausted, Sheila had more than 30 staples in her head, but she smiled and celebrated the day. They had a Wonder Woman theme. Sheila said that she felt like Wonder Woman herself
WHAT ARE TUMORS OF GLIOMA?
Gliomas are brain tumors that appear in glial cells, the supporting cells of the nervous system.
There are three types of gliomas; astrocytoma, oligodendroglioma and ependymoma.
The most common gliomas are astrocytomas, which are found in brain cells that support nerve cells.
Gliomas can be low grade (slow growth) or high grade (fast growing), and doctors use these grades to determine the type of treatment needed.
Source: Cancer Research
An MRI performed at the hospital revealed a tumor on the back, on the right side of Sheila's brain.
At 17 weeks of pregnancy, Sheila learned that she had to undergo brain surgery, which made her extremely fearful for the health of her unborn baby.
On March 12, 2018, Sheila underwent a craniotomy to remove the tumor and her baby was monitored throughout the operation.
At an appointment to remove her staples, the doctors informed Sheila that she had a slow-growing second-year tumor, but that she should wait until her son was born to receive treatment.
On August 8, 2018, Sheila welcomed her son Josiah, who weighed 7 pounds.
Josiah was born with an aortic coarctation, which is a narrowing of the blood vessel carrying oxygen, necessitating an operation of the heart at the age of four days.
Sheila should have started radiation therapy immediately, but her sick son needed her and she wanted to breastfeed to help her recover. She therefore delayed treatment until January 2019.
"I was excited to be pregnant again, but also nervous because I would have two children under two," Sheila said.
"I remember having a headache after 12 weeks of pregnancy. At first they appeared to be a mild headache, but they became more intense and lasted longer.
They would last a few hours, but less than a week, they would last all day. Finally, they never left.
"At first, visual auras were only small dots in the upper left of my view, but eventually these auras became larger and lasted longer.
It seemed innocuous to Sheila, who thought she was stressed or just reacting to hormonal changes.
She did not expect a diagnosis of cancer.
The tumor that Sheila has is called oligodendroglioma, a rare, slow-growing tumor that's almost impossible to completely remove.
Oligodendrogliomas account for two to five percent of all brain tumors and mainly affect adults over 40 years of age.
Sheila started treatment on January 3, 2019, taking a chemotherapy pill (Temodar) every day, one hour before radiation. For six weeks, Sheila underwent radiation therapy every day from Monday to Friday, for a total of 30 treatments.
Sheila, photographed shortly after her craniotomy at 17 weeks of pregnancy – delirious, frightened and confused
"I was so confused and scared," Sheila said.
"I was 17 weeks pregnant and I needed a brain operation. I did not know if my baby would be fine. I was so nervous for me and my baby. Plus, I had another baby at home who did not even quite a year old.
Sheila was operated on and after that I was very successful. She could walk, talk and eat.
"The little things were so important because I was lucky to be alive," Sheila said.
"After the operation, I rested because I could not even raise my own child. I sat on the ground and let her crawl on my knees because I could not lift her. I felt so sad that I could not physically take care of her as I did before.
"On March 25, 2018, we celebrated my daughter's first birthday. I had more than 30 staples in my head, but I smiled and celebrated the day. We had a Wonder Woman theme that was pretty funny because I felt myself as Wonder Woman.
When Sheila discovered that Josiah was sick, she also delayed treatment so she could breastfeed (photo shortly after Josiah's birth).
"Over the next few months, I focused on staying healthy because I wanted a safe birth. I went to follow up a few weeks after the operation to review the results. I was probably pregnant about 19 weeks old and I discovered that I had a slow growing tumor.
Sheila had to delay treatment until the end of her pregnancy for the safety of her son, but after 37 weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed that her son would be born with heart disease.
Josiah was born August 8, 2018 and was quickly taken to the NICU for assessment. Josiah was operated on at the age of four days and returned home two weeks later.
"I decided to wait for treatment because my child needed me. I focused on him and put my needs aside, "Sheila said.
"I thought that my surgery and my tumor had caused my son's heart disease. I thought it was my fault. Now, I know this is not the case.
Sheila's doctor agreed to let her wait at least three months to breastfeed her son.
"I had to have constant follow-up MRIs, but at the time, I had to be there for my baby. I wanted to breastfeed and make it strong.
"I continued my follow-ups and everything seemed to be going well. So we planned to start treatment in December.
"The month of December came and I started weaning my baby from breastfeeding, and then I prepared for my radiation mask.
Sheila started treatment on January 3, 2019, taking a chemotherapy pill (Temodar) every day, one hour before radiation.
For six weeks, Sheila underwent radiation therapy every day from Monday to Friday, for a total of 30 treatments.
She is now waiting for the results of the treatment, but she is focusing on her babies.