It was January 2015 when Mallory Cooper first experienced difficulties swallowing.
Then 26 years old, Cooper was pregnant with her third child and her increasing inability to absorb nourishment appeared to be pregnancy-related. Her child, a healthy girl, was born in May 2015, but Cooper’s condition worsened.
Two months later, she underwent a barium swallow test, a diagnostic procedure that sees patients swallow liquid barium sulphate while X-rays are obtained.
In the case of Cooper, it revealed a mass right where the esophagus meets her stomach. Subsequent tests confirmed stomach cancer (adenocarcinoma).
The tumour – found to be some eight centimetres in length – was blocking food, even large gulps of water.
“It was quite big,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
Cooper is sitting at the dining table of her townhouse near the University of Victoria. The afternoon sun beams through a westward-facing opening and fills the small but comfortable residence with brightness. Cooper’s middle child, three-year-old Tristan, plays with his father, Cooper’s husband Aaron, their giggles and laughs resonating with joy.
Cooper, who received the diagnosis in the midst of moving to Saanich from Alberta, says she initially denied it. “I never had any health issues before,” she says. In fact, Cooper says she did not really let it sink in until one of her doctors had described the seriousness of the situation. “I was scared,” she says. “It took me a long time to accept the situation more.”
She had some reasons to be optimistic though. Cooper qualified for surgery by virtue of her age.
Available information at the time had shown that the cancer had not spread and doctors were hopeful that chemotherapy before and after the surgery would cure Cooper.
“Up till that point, we were very hopeful,” she said.
In October 2015, Cooper underwent surgery to remove most of her stomach, some 40 lymph nodes and large portions of esophagus. Subsequent testing showed the stomach cancer had spread to a stage of significantly diminished odds. According to Cooper, only four per cent of cases like hers make it to the five-year mark.
Nine rounds of chemotherapy later, scans showed no evidence of disease.
“At that point I was given a seven-month break,” she said. But the cancer returned and a scan taken in November 2016 showed a five-centimetre mass on her adrenal gland that had further spread to her right lung.
While Cooper knows the odds stack against her, she tries to remain optimistic, a goal supported by her “very, very, very helpful” oncologist, who has not given her any figures about how much time she might have left.
“He wants to make sure that I stay hopeful and not focus on numbers,” she says. This said, Cooper has also dealt with other doctors, who have been more blunt.
“One doctor, she did say, that medically, it would be surprising if I made it to my 35th birthday,” she says.
Of Cooper’s three children, six-year-old Phaedra is the most aware of the circumstances that confront her mother.
To help Phaedra cope, she has been taking art therapy classes through a local cancer clinic. Cooper, meanwhile, has found and received support from various sources, starting with her husband Aaron, who has taken time off work.
Her mother and especially her brother also shoulder child-caring duties whenever the sickening effects of chemotherapy confine Cooper to bed.
“When I do chemo, it makes me extremely sick for about a week,” she says. “I can’t get out of bed without being sick. So I can’t get up with my kids in the morning. I can’t make them lunch and I can’t send them to school or I can’t go pick them up.”
While not religious, Cooper describes herself as a spiritual person, who prays in her own way. She also kept a journal in which she has expressed gratitude for every day granted to her.
“It is just different, having to actively fight for your life every day,” she says. “Most people don’t wake up and think ‘I have to be careful today because I might be hit by a car.’ That is not going through your head. But when you are fighting a deadly illness or disease, it is in the back of your head all the time.”
Accordingly, Cooper has come to appreciate every afforded opportunity to spend time with her children. Things that seemed trivial, even taxing in the past, have become so much more meaningful, she says.
“So when I am feeling well, I’m actually really excited to make the trek to get my son from pre-school,” she says. “I don’t mind when my two-year-old wakes up at three in the morning anymore. I would rather be sleeping, but I realize that I don’t know what is going to happen, right? I’m OK with that. I’m OK with holding her while she is crying. It is just another moment to have with her.”
Cooper has many reasons to quarrel with her fate. While cancer can strike anyone at any age, Cooper is entering the prime of life. Her cancer is also the product of a rare genetic disease called Lynch syndrome. Inherited from one of her parents, it makes individuals more susceptible to certain types of cancer. This genetic legacy also means that Cooper may have passed Lynch syndrome to one or maybe all her children, who might then experience something similar in the future. “I was very upset…but at least we know,” she says.
Cooper also refuses to let cancer shame her. She has written about it in her journal and speaks it about it publicly whenever she has a chance.
Above all, she has not given up hope. She has started a public online fundraising campaign (search Mallory Cooper at gofundme.com) to help cover travel expenses and other treatment options that might not be covered. So far, it is about halfway towards its goal of $5,000.
“Stage 4 stomach cancer does not have a good prognosis and we really don’t know what is going to happen,” she says. “My prognosis isn’t great. So if something does happen to me anytime soon, we are hoping that it will grow into something that can be there for [Aaron] and the kids to deal with things that come up at that time.”
Cooper does not know how much time she has left and her uncertainty turns into regret when she contemplates the possibility of leaving her children.
“My children are still very, very young and I like being a mom,” she says.
But Cooper also projects an admirable sense of acceptance about what might lie ahead that has helped her focus on the here and now with children and husband.
“We have so many people who love us and will be there for them if something happens to me,” she says. “I know that ultimately they will be OK.”