The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She rejected chemotherapy and chose to die of cancer — so she could give birth to her child

This October 2013 photo shows Carrie DeKlyen and husband Nick DeKlyen in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Michelle Werkema/Courtesy of Sonya Nelson via AP)

The headaches began sometime in March. They didn’t think much of them, other than that they were possible migraines — until she started vomiting.

An initial scan showed a mass in Carrie DeKlyen’s brain. More tests showed that it was a form of cancer, possibly lymphoma, but treatable. But a pathology exam revealed a more grim diagnosis. The 37-year-old mother of five from Wyoming, Mich., had glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. If lucky, she could live for five more years.

The tumor was taken out during a surgery in April, her husband, Nick DeKlyen, said. Not even a month later, the couple received two pieces of shocking news. Carrie’s tumor was back — and she was eight weeks pregnant.

They had two options. They could try to prolong Carrie’s life through chemotherapy, but that meant ending her pregnancy. Or they could keep the baby, but Carrie would not live long enough to see the child.

It was a difficult but obvious choice for the DeKlyens, who live strongly by their faith. After a second surgery to remove the tumor that came back, the couple went home, knowing full well that Carrie had only months left. Thirty-four more weeks. Nick said that's how long his wife needed to live.

“That’s what she wanted,” Nick said. “We love the Lord. We’re pro-life. We believe that God gave us this baby.”

By the end of June, the tumor was back again, but this time, it was inoperable. Doctors told the DeKlyens that all they could do was to keep taking out the fluid accumulating in Carrie’s brain to relieve the pain, Nick said.

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Carrie was rushed back to the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor by mid-July. She was screaming in pain and was convulsing. That was the last time she was conscious.

“They said that she had a massive stroke,” Nick said. “They said the fluid built up so much the cranium had no place to go.”

Carrie was 19 weeks pregnant by then. Nick said doctors told him they would do what they could to keep the child growing. But Carrie would probably not wake up again, and if she did, she wouldn’t recognize her family. She had suffered significant brain damage from the stroke. For the next several weeks, a feeding tube and a breathing machine would keep the mother and her child alive.

Two weeks later, another stroke. Carrie’s brain was so swollen that doctors had to remove her skull, Nick said.

By the time Carrie was 22 weeks pregnant, her baby wasn't growing fast enough, weighing only 378 grams, or eight-tenths of pound. To survive birth, the baby had to be at least 500 grams, just a little more than a pound, Nick said.

Another two weeks went by. Good news came: The baby weighed 625 grams. The bad news was the baby was not moving.

Nick said he was given two options. He could do nothing and hope the baby starts moving and continues growing. But doing nothing meant his child could die within an hour. Or he could authorize a Caesarean section. Nick chose the latter.

His daughter, Life Lynn DeKlyen, was born at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. She weighed 1 pound 4 ounces. Nick said he and his wife came up with the name before Carrie got sick.

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“It was kind of bittersweet because my wife’s not awake. She’s going to pass away,” Nick said. “After that, I went to the surgeon and said my wife had enough. She’s gone through so much pain these last five months.”

Carrie lived briefly after doctors unhooked her life support.

“I sat by her the whole time. I kind of held her hand and kissing her, telling her that she did good,” Nick said. “I told her, ‘I love you, and I’ll see you in heaven.’ ”

Early on Friday morning, Carrie opened her eyes, Nick said, then closed them again. She clenched her hands tightly, then slowly, she stopped breathing. Carrie died at 4:30 a.m.

Carrie’s story was chronicled in a Facebook page called Cure 4 Carrie, which has since attracted more than 16,000 followers.

Now, four days after his daughter was born and two days after his wife died, Nick is dividing his time between planning a funeral and visiting his newborn, who has to remain in intensive care for several weeks. Nick lives temporarily in the Ronald McDonald House in Ann Arbor, just a short walk from the hospital. On weekends, he drives two hours back to Wyoming to visit his other children, ages 18, 16, 11, 4 and 2.

Glioblastoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Here's what you need to know about it. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post, Photo: Anthony N. Van den Pol/The Washington Post)

The 39-year-old is still figuring out his family’s future. Four years ago, he said, he started a vending machine company that he later sold to his brother. But right now, he does not have a source of income.

“My wife’s gone. I have six kids, three are under the age of 5. I’m just going to focus on my daughter right now, getting her home,” he said. “As far as what I'm going to do after that, I can’t tell you.”

A GoFundMe page to help the family has raised more than $100,000 as of Sunday afternoon.

Nick dismissed critics who questioned the couple’s decision to put their faith first, saying keeping their child showed his wife’s selflessness.

“She gave up her life for the baby,” he said, adding later: “I just want people to know that my wife loved the Lord. She loved her kids. She put anybody in front of her needs. … She put my daughter above herself.”


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