Dawn had been through rough times with her family before. From her son Alex’s numerous surgeries on both feet throughout his childhood to the loss of her husband Richard’s job in September 2001, they had seen a lot together.
Through it all though, the family kept its faith.
Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City, Dawn learned she was carrying her third child. With a 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, and 10-year-old Alex already in tow, it was a surprising addition.
"I hadn’t exactly signed up for more,” Dawn said laughing. “But I got it. My first doctor’s appointment was Oct. 28. I remember getting in the shower that morning and saying, ‘Well, I better shave my underarms in case they decide to do a full exam.’ They hadn’t done one on the first appointment with my other two, but I thought they may anyway."
Dawn was right.
"The midwife touched my right breast, and the instant she did, I saw something in her face,” Dawn said. “I’ll never forget that."
At 38 years old, it was the last thing Dawn expected.
The following week, Dawn had her sonogram so doctors could determine if her lump was malignant. They decided to go ahead with a biopsy immediately too.
"I was relieved to not have to schedule another appointment to come back. My nerves were a wreck,” Dawn said. “They did four needle biopsies that day, and all the tissue samples looked like spaghetti noodles. I just remember them saying they were going to take good care of me, and I walked out oblivious to what was happening."
She was 11 weeks pregnant.
When her doctor called Dawn’s home, five days later, she listened on one phone while her husband listened on another. Dawn’s doctor told the couple that all four of her samples came back malignant. She had cancer.
"I hung up the phone and just sat there,” Dawn said. “My husband came back to the bedroom, and we just looked at each other."
They told their family and friends immediately and started their search for a doctor. After speaking with oncologists at some of the leader cancer centers in the country, they decided to stay put.
"A doctor at a New York hospital told me to stay in Atlanta,” Dawn said. “He said I was in good hands at Northside. There was no reason to go anywhere else."
Her oncologist met with the couple soon after. “We had an instant connection,” Dawn said. "The first thing he told me was that I was way too young to be in his office. He asked me once if I wanted to keep the baby. I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and he never asked again."
Dawn soon found there was an extremely narrow window of what was good for the baby compared to what would kill – or feed -- the cancer.
She underwent a lumpectomy on Dec. 5, 2001. During the operation, an obstetrician stayed by Dawn’s side to make sure the baby’s health was never endangered.
To make sure Dawn understood everything that was happening, Northside put her in touch with Susan, the hospital’s nurse breast care navigator.
"She was awesome,” Dawn said. “She explained the different types of breast cancers, the surgeries, how the treatment makes you feel, the drains they have to put in, everything. They talked to my husband about what to expect, put me in touch with other women going through what I was going through and let him talk to other spouses."
Dawn joined the Network of Hope, a group of breast cancer survivors, and members gave her a stuffed bear with a pink ribbon on his foot as a symbol of bravery.
Armed with her stuffed bear, Dawn underwent a second surgery Dec. 19.
The day after Christmas, her surgeon called to say they still didn’t get good results. She had to have a mastectomy.
Because a malignant tumor had grown vertically into Dawn’s chest wall, doctors would have to follow a mastectomy on Jan. 8 with chemotherapy. Even worse, like other pregnant women, Dawn’s body was producing estrogen, which fed the cancer.
Its rapid growth made it impossible to wait any longer. "The doctors explained everything to me in a way I could understand,” Dawn said. “I had three surgeries in five weeks, so naturally it was hard. I worried about the baby a lot. But while I was being operated on, there were always perinatal doctors in the room. They just said the baby was taking a long nap."
Chemo molecules are too large to pass through the placenta, so undergoing treatment was safe for the baby. Of the 16,000 births at Northside each year, about three mothers are administered chemo during pregnancy, Dawn said.
"It was still hard, but we had so many other things going on I couldn't just concentrate on myself,” Dawn said. "My daughter got severe strep throat when she was 2 years old, and the shot of codeine doctors gave her made her constipated. She ended up in the emergency room at Northside with impacted bowels
"It almost became laughable,” she said. “Here we are, with Rachel in the ER. My son still has casts on his legs, and my husband still didn’t have another job. God gave us a great sense of humor about the whole thing. The night before my mastectomy, we even had a final viewing of my breast."
In February, Dawn started chemo. She had four rounds, one every 21 days.
"The first time I walked in that chemo room was the first time it hit me square in the face,” Dawn said. “I remember there were five other people there, all over 60, and I said to myself, 'I am really sick.'"
She wasn’t the only one with that thought.
"I learned real fast that I could clear out an aisle at Target,” Dawn said. “At that point, I had lost my hair, I looked pregnant and there were black circles under my eyes. People looked at me like I was a freak, like I was contagious. They were afraid, and that hurt."
Throughout her treatment, Dawn’s family stood by her side. Her brother, Bo Chambers, moved from Hilton Head, S.C., to be with her. And her husband, Richard, “very sweetly” shaved her head when hair began falling out.
"Because I didn’t have any hair, I was cold all the time," Dawn said. "The kids would rub their hands together and put them on my head. I wore a wig one time, but Rachel wouldn’t talk to me. So, I just stuck to a baseball cap Richard bought me."
Aside from her family, Susan "really became engaged in my life," Dawn said. "She knew my kids by name, called me at home. It made me feel like someone who didn’t have to care, cared."
Susan became the only person to see Dawn’s fear. She had to be strong for everyone else.
Finally, on May 7, doctors induced labor. Stephen weighed in at a healthy 5 pounds 11 ounces. It was a miracle to Dawn, especially since doctors were concerned he wouldn’t reach 5 pounds.
"He was my ray of sunshine," she said. "When I saw him, I knew that he was what I had gone through everything for. We were ecstatic."
She took a limo home from the hospital, and started radiation a week later. After six more weeks of treatment, it was over.
To make sure they had gotten all the cancer, doctors gave Dawn "every check-up known to man. … After that, I realized it was time to start living again. I had constantly been preparing myself for bad news, and now it was over."
Dawn returned to Northside in 2004 for breast reconstructive surgery.
"I wanted to do it all here,” she said. "I was adamant about not going anywhere else. I just felt there was a whole other level of care at Northside. It didn’t matter that it was a much longer drive for us."
After her recovery, Dawn discovered through a hereditary genetic test she had the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes that showed she has an 86 percent chance of breast cancer recurrence or ovarian cancer.
If that day comes, Dawn said she will return to Northside for care.
The oncologists, perinatal doctors, obstetricians, general surgeons and specialists of nearly every type who teamed up to help her and her family gave her all the confidence in the world.
"I wouldn’t even think about going somewhere else," she said.