by Mary C. Uhler
“People comment, ‘He’s so happy, so special. He shines!”‘
That’s how Joyce Maguire describes her son, Matthew, who celebrated his fifth birthday in 1992. “I think children know they’re loved even before they’re born. And Matthew knew he was loved.”
Joyce and her husband Frank of Germantown, Maryland, indeed have a deep love for their son. “What emptiness we would have in our lives if Matthew weren’t here,” said Frank. Because his mother was involved in a “high-risk” pregnancy, the kind some women end by aborting the child, Matthew might not even have been born.
In February 1987, Joyce became pregnant with the couple’s first child. As expectant parents, they were excited and full of plans. They loved to discuss the baby’s size and development. “It was a time of special joy,” recalled Frank.
In July, when Joyce was five months pregnant, a small lump was discovered in her breast, and a nurse suggested removal “just to be careful.” The procedure took about an hour in the outpatient surgery department of a local hospital.
Soon after the surgery, Joyce called Frank at work. An anxious nurse had told her that the pathologist’s report revealed there was “something wrong” – the lump was malignant. She had cancer.
Joyce and Frank endured a long, tearful night. The next morning they visited the surgeon. Joyce was given two options: a mastectomy (removal of the breast); or a lumpectomy (removal of the area immediately surrounding the tumor), followed by radiation treatments. The lumpectomy would be less disfiguring but the ensuing radiation would endanger the baby. Chemotherapy, which would be imperative after either surgery, would also expose the baby to damage.
According to her doctor, Joyce’s failure to treat her cancer – for fear of harming the baby – would seriously decrease her chance of survival. The surgeon then suggested they could “terminate” the pregnancy. He told the Maguires about a patient in a similar situation who saved her breast by having an abortion followed by a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. But Joyce allowed no further discussion of abortion. “That is not a possibility,” she told the doctor emphatically. She decided to have modified radical breast surgery and to postpone chemotherapy until after the baby’s birth.
In looking back, Joyce said abortion was completely out of the question. “I would never have even contemplated killing my child,” she said. Her decision was not based on religious precepts. It resulted simply from her unconditional love for their baby.
Matthew was born in November of 1987. “He was incredibly healthy. He was above 95 percent in weight and height,” a proud Joyce recalled.
Although members of the Maguire family were upset about Joyce’s cancer, they were very supportive of her decision to have the baby. “Nobody argued against the decision,” recalled Frank. “This was serious stuff, however. Everybody was scared.”
Once the Maguires made their decision, the doctors also supported them. “My oncologist was wonderful,” said Joyce. “He was worried about me, but he also said, ‘I understand what you’re doing.’ ” Would she do it again? “Yes,” said Joyce without hesitation. Her husband agreed, “We obviously had a good result.”
“For us, I always knew it was the right decision, and I knew things would work out,” stressed Joyce. “I don’t believe in killing babies.”
For other couples facing a similar crisis, Frank said he would explain what happened to him and Joyce, encourage them to have the baby, and show them pictures of Matthew. “A picture is definitely worth a thousand words,” he observed.
Initially, the Maguires were cautioned about having another child. For a time, they parented foster infants awaiting adoption. After several consultations, Joyce was given the “green light” to become pregnant again.*
Their dream of another child came true when the Maguires learned they were expecting another child in 1993.
Every now and then on his way to work, Frank drives past the hospital where Matthew was born. He remembers the summer of 1987 – a summer of tears and courage, despair and joy – when his wife seemingly risked her life to choose life for their son. For the Maguires, it was the right choice for everyone.
Mary C. Uhler is editor of The Catholic Herald, official newspaper of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. She and her husband, John, have two children and are active in church and community groups.
* Studies released by the National Institute of Health in the early 1990s revealed that subsequent pregnancies in women who have had breast cancer and treatment have no effect upon the recurrence of cancer.\: Danforth, Jr., David. N., M.D., “How Subsequent Pregnancy Affects Outcome in Women With a Prior Breast Cancer,” Oncology, November 1991, Vol. 5, No. 11.