CAMBRIDGE – It was in December of 2018 when Amelia Vincent felt a lump in her breast. She was 20 weeks pregnant.
“I just thought it was like a duct blockage,” said the Cambridge resident. “As time went on I just kind of forgot about it.”
In March, however, she noticed it was bigger, about the size of a dime.
“Jake (her husband) told me I was going to the doctor anyway, I might as well get it checked out,” she recalled.
Her doctor took a proactive approach and ordered an ultrasound and a full breast biopsy. At about the same time she also underwent a non-stress test due to a fibroid on her uterus, that prompted them to monitor the baby's heart rate.
After nine years of working as a preschool teacher in Kewanee, Amelia had just been hired as a kindergarten teacher in Cambridge. Her husband works for Goldstar FS in Cambridge.
After her biopsy a nurse from the regular breast cancer said to Amelia that she hoped that they wouldn't see each other again, meaning Amelia would be cancer-free.
One week later, when she and Jake returned for the results Amelia saw the nurse and got a bad feeling. Her doctor came in and delivered the news — stage 2 breast cancer.
“I thought, 'I'm 32 weeks along. What about my baby? What about my husband?'” she said. “I just remember not crying. I just sat in shock and thought 'what am I going to do?'
“I lost it a little bit but not too much. I don't like people to see me like that,” she added.
She said walking out to the car, “That's where I just lost it.”
Her medical team began calculating how soon they could induce labor in order to treat Amelia for cancer. They were ready before Amelia was.
The medical team knew the baby was a good size and already practicing the motion of breathing, and decided to give Amelia a steroid injection to help the baby's lungs. Amelia was sent to Peoria for a second opinion on whether the baby was ready to be born. On March 21, the team was ready to induce labor for the birth of their daughter Mila (pronounced MEE-la).
“We weren't ready. We hadn't packed or thought about what we were going to do with the dog. I was scared. I thought, 'she's going to be six weeks early,'” she recalled.
“They induced me the next morning,” she said. “I thought it went pretty smooth. I had a great team of nurses and doctors. Everybody was really supportive. They knew that I had a lot on my plate. And she came out healthy with a set of lungs...I can't say enough about the nurses on that team. It's like another family and they care about me and my well-being and Mila and Jake.”
Mila was born March 22 and stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit until April 6. Amelia's 31st birthday was April 2, and her first day of chemotherapy treatment was April 5.
First-year of motherhood
Amelia's first year of motherhood has been different than most, but still a treasure.
“It's a lot of work. You worry a lot and you're never going to sleep the same, but I wouldn't change it for the world,” said Amelia. She noted the baby's progress at six months. “She's doing great. She's 14 pounds and 26 inches long and she's healthy. She's met all the benchmarks. She's a happy baby, always happy, and she's sleeping through the night for the most part.”
A week after starting chemo, she began losing her hair. “You have to learn to love yourself in a whole different way. It was humbling,” she said.
She said the chemo was a little nauseating occasionally, but they could give her medicine for it.
By the end of July, it was getting harder to undergo the weekly chemo treatments. “I knew I was coming to the end and I could feel my body ready to be done,” she said.
Her husband's words of encouragement kept her going. “He said, 'I know you're tired, but you're almost there.'”
She appreciates her Trinity oncologist and the group of nurses who took care of her. “It never felt like you were just going to the hospital. It always felt like going home, with patients with similar and different types of cancer. I felt like that helped me, hearing about them. I made some really good friends that I keep in contact with now.”
Back to school
In August, she started back to work, finishing her last chemo treatment on August 15 and the next day attending a teacher institute day. “The kids, I love how raw they are and the questions they ask. I tell people the good, the bad and the ugly, and the kids are curious about my hair — they want to see how much it's grown.”
Cambridge grade school principal Shelly Capps, Amelia's boss, is one of her biggest fans.
“Mila gave her the drive to fight this,” said Capps. “She knew she was going to fight this and she knew she was going to win. She's a warrior.”
Amelia was at school for three weeks before having to take more time off to have a double mastectomy. Back in mid-May, she'd tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene which up until then her family didn't know they had.
“I wanted to do everything I could to decrease the chances of it coming back,” she said.
After her child-bearing years have passed, she says she will think about having her ovaries removed.
One week after her mastectomy at 6:30 p.m. she got some welcome news. Her doctor said that he didn't want her to have to wait one more minute.
“All of my results came back negative,” she said. “I cried lots of happy tears.”
She said she really appreciated the late-day call. “They don't have to do that, but they did,” she said.
She will begin radiology treatments in mid-October, five days a week for six weeks and plans to work through it.
“It's another way to hopefully benefit me so nothing is recurring, and we're just zapping it is kind of what I'm thinking,” she said. “I know I'm going to be tired and it's going to be hard, but I miss my kids...The parents have been so great with notes saying 'thinking of you' and 'prayers' and 'so-and-so misses you.' Those messages mean so much to me.”
Amelia said her goal is to wrap up treatment this year and start fresh with a whole new year ahead in 2020.
“It's been a hard year, but it's been also a year where you learn a lot about yourself and find that people care about you. It's been a humbling experience.
“Your attitude plays a huge role in the whole process,” she continued. “If I didn't have that positive attitude, I don't know if it would have been as good an experience for me. I just didn't want people feeling sorry for me, that's the last thing I ever wanted.”
She said it's important to make sure your doctors listen to your thoughts and answer your questions. “I was lucky enough to have doctors like that. Sometimes it goes over your head and it's 'okay, dumb it down for me and tell me what would you do.'”
“I always went in calm, happy and smiling. I was polite. I felt like that got me more. Being mad at the world wasn't going to get me anywhere,” she said.
She also stressed the importance of doing self-checks, saying she didn't know what the outcome might have been if she hadn't taken action.
“I remember telling Jake I don't want people treating me differently because I have cancer,” she said. “I didn't want my family or friends to see me in pain. When I talk I always try to keep it as positive as possible.”
She said she benefited from talking to two other women with cancer. One woman was someone she'd known who was about a year ahead of her in their treatment, and the other was more or less a stranger who she reached out to.
“Having people like that really helps you get through that process,” she said.
Another friend from teaching in Kewanee is Sarah Swanson, who now teaches preschool with special needs in Geneseo. Swanson has helped organize an October 12 benefit for her friend.
“I know she's a pretty humble person and the type of person that will do anything for anyone and she doesn't like to inconvenience anyone by asking for help,” said Swanson. “I can't take away her physical struggles, but at least I can do this. We've had great support already from the community, I just hope we have a great turnout that day.”
Lauren Vincent, of Cambridge, is also coordinating the benefit. She said she is now related to Amelia since Amelia and Jake's marriage in 2017, but they have been good friends for eight years or so. “It seemed like she would do it for us, so that's why we decided to do it for her.”
Amelia talked about the reaction she gets from people.
“Everyone is saying, 'Wow, you're doing so well with all this,'” she said. “The support of my co-workers, family, and friends — our community — being in a small town, the outpouring amount of support from so many people that we know and don't even know. That has been amazing, and I will never be able to tell them.”
“People say 'you're inspiring so many women' and 'we look up to you,'” she noted. “I don't know how to respond to that. I just see it as I'm doing what I have to do. I'm going to beat it and that's the ultimate goal.”
A benefit for for Amelia Vincent and her family will be held October 12 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Henry County Fair Merchants Building. Over 75 baskets will be in a silent auction starting at 4 until 6:30 p.m. A pulled pork meal with cheesy potatoes, baked beans, chips, applesauce, dessert, and drink is $10 while a hot dog meal is $5. Dinner is from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The 50/50 drawing and a live auction start at 7 p.m. An account has also been set up at BankORION under the name “Amelia Vincent Benefit.” Tom Campbell of Bishop Hill will sing and play the guitar from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. while DJ Mike DeGeeter will provide music from 8 to 11 p.m. There will also be face painting and a bounce house for the kids.