She was 25 years old and pregnant with her first child—the picture of health, happiness, and the potential of life. But Nicole Davis had no idea that she’d developed a relentless form of cancer that was, in a cruel twist, aggravated by her pregnancy.
That same day, Nicole and Tyler were led into the oncology/hematology department on the Kaiser Franklin Medical Center’s 12th floor. An open room with breathtaking views of the skyline and big, comfy-looking recliners, it resembled a salon but for the numerous IV poles. As the sun shone yellow-white outside and made the city glitter, a nurse took Nicole’s trembling hand and guided her to one of the cushioned chairs. Most of the women hooked up to IVs were frail, middle-aged, and bald. Though Nicole resisted the image, they reminded her of Holocaust victims.
Tyler sat next to her and held her hand. The nurse found a vein in the other hand and inserted the transparent plastic tube. Connected to the tube was a syringe full of bright-red Doxorubicin (known in the United States as Adriamycin), part of the standard chemo combination known as AC. It was the color of all manner of poisons: dangerous berries and toadstools, the spot on the back of the deadly redback spider, the tainted apple given to Snow White by the evil queen. This link between the chemotherapy drug and a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals is not far fetched: The treatment was born of a deadly weapon.
As described in “Systemic chemotherapy for cancer: from weapon to treatment,” published in a 2008 issue of the scientific journal the Lancet, scientists discovered during World War I that mustard gas lowered people’s white blood cell counts and could shrink tumors. By the ’40s, researchers were using nitrogen mustard as the first effective chemotherapy. Doxorubicin is one of its descendants, and its mission was clear: Infiltrate Nicole’s cells, insert itself into the helix of her DNA strands like a crowbar propping open an elevator door, and halt the fast-paced replication of cancer cells threatening her life. Nicole watched with horror as the ruby-colored fluid inched slowly toward her vein. Her breathing grew ragged and her heart pounded, reverberating in her ears like the sound of someone sprinting up a staircase. The nurse told her to calm down. Soon, a strange toxic coldness spread up her arm; she tasted metal in her mouth. After a few minutes, the baby moved. It was different from anything she’d felt before—sudden and violent, as if the infant was pummeling her mother’s uterus with tiny little fists.
By March 2009, the Davises’ family members were taking turns driving her to the Kaiser Franklin Medical Center every three weeks and sitting with her for hours as the drugs seeped into her veins. Afterward, she would be drained and nauseated. With her due date approaching, she was constantly holding her belly and talking to Abigail. “Don’t worry,” she’d tell her, “I’ll always keep you safe—I won’t let you see fighting and yelling like I did when I was a kid.” She often felt angry with God; still, she prayed and attended church. She asked that her baby be born healthy, that her family find comfort, and that she make it through the next chemo treatment. Often when she felt sick, she would go into the nursery, which friends and relatives had helped paint pink and light green. There, surrounded by stuffed animals, painted dragonflies, and the crib filled with a red ladybug comforter, she would sit by herself and imagine what Abigail might look like.
Her hair remained the same for weeks, and she thought she might be some sort of anomaly and get to keep it. But by the beginning of March, it had started to come out—in the shower, onto her pillows, in her brush. Nicole’s aunt took her to a cousin’s salon. They tried to make it a festive opportunity for a stylish new haircut, but as Nicole watched in the mirror as her long, blond curls fell to the ground, she held back tears. Two weeks later, huge clumps of hair began coming out, and she had her hair buzzed. Two days after that, Tyler used a razor to shave her head clean.
On April 4, 2009, a week and a half after her third chemo treatment, Nicole and Tyler were getting ready for a friend’s party when her water broke and she began having contractions. Within an hour, Tyler, Aunt Marilyn, and several other relatives stood by at Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital as Nicole labored. Doctors were concerned by the timing since her white blood cell counts were lowest seven to 10 days after chemo, making her body less effective at fighting infection and clotting blood. After three or four pushes, Nicole’s baby emerged at 9:58 p.m. with a full head of hair, which made everyone laugh since Nicole was completely bald. Abigail was 18 and three-quarter inches long; six pounds, three ounces; and healthy.
All Nicole wanted to do was stay home and care for her newborn daughter, but she was only two months into a 15-month treatment plan. She did 12 weeks of a chemo drug called Taxol and began taking Herceptin. For months, she barely left the house except for trips to the hospital and spent most of her time sitting in bed rocking Abbey.
One day at the chemo center, as Nicole sat in her usual chair overlooking the city, a new woman walked in. Close to Nicole in age, she smiled and walked with a confident bounce in her step despite her bald head and flat chest. Her name was Crystal Dean, and the two began scheduling their treatments on the same days and times. They would pretend they were at the salon for pedicures, and when the nurses gave them Benadryl to minimize adverse drug reactions, they’d relax into the loopy buzz and joke around. During one such session, they coined a term for those who ushered them to and from treatment: Kemo Sabe, the Native American term for “trusted friend” immortalized by Tonto. “Who’s my Kemo Sabe next month?” Nicole would ask with a laugh.
One warm summer night when Abbey was a few months old, Nicole felt searing pain in her lower back. She couldn’t urinate. It was a nasty side effect that had happened to her before and had required a trip to the hospital to have a catheter placed. She was exhausted from caring for Abbey and trying to keep the house clean while low on energy, and going to the hospital was the last thing she wanted. She couldn’t even imagine walking to the car. For four or five months she’d been driving back and forth, getting pricked and prodded and sliced open and filled with poison. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, sitting on their bed with tears trickling down her cheeks. Tyler called Uncle Ted, who arrived at their house minutes later. Ted, a tire salesman, was one of the family’s most sought-after patriarchs, a devout Christian who coined the term “Each of Us is All of Us,” or EOUIAOU, which soon began appearing on the Facebook status updates of his children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Tyler let him in, and Ted walked up the stairs. “Nicole,” he said, “I know this is hard, I know that you feel like you can’t do it. But you’re strong.”
Nicole began radiation weeks later, when Abbey was four months old. While each treatment was shorter than the hours-long chemo sessions, they were five days a week for nearly two months. She and Tyler mass-mailed family and friends to help with Abbey, and they kept a complex babysitting schedule to keep track. As the months dragged on, Nicole felt as if her treatment would never end. She watched women like Crystal—who finished her treatment and today is cancer-free—come and go. When the nurses threw goodbye parties for patients, Nicole looked forward to her own.
In May 2010, after 15 months of treatment, Nicole was finally done. For her last chemo session, Aunt Marilyn brought a white, raspberry-filled layer cake to the clinic. The nurses wished her well with a rousing rendition of “Hit the Road, Jack.” Yet amid the celebration, Nicole was surprised to notice a new, creeping anxiety. During all those months of treatment, while getting blood tests and taking medicines designed to kill cancer, she felt as though she was actively fighting an insidious and sneaky enemy, and she worried that in the absence of the regular treatment...well, she couldn’t help thinking about it.