By Margie Wuebker
NEW KNOXVILLE -- Beth Dwenger sits at the dining room table looking through packets of family pictures. She smiles at the antics of 21Ú2-year-old Gretchen and looks longingly at those of 6-week-old Troy.
The children and the unwavering support of her husband, Matt, are literally the wind beneath her wings as she battles breast cancer that has metastasized to the lungs and spine.
The 27-year-old mother laughs softly before returning the photographs to their envelopes, readjusting the trail of clear plastic tubing attached to an oxygen tank and reflecting on a summer filled with unexpected developments.
"Life can be filled with twists and turns," she says. "And sometimes you encounter an awful lot of bumps."
Keeping up with an active toddler left the stay-at-home mom exhausted. And then there was the nagging backache. She naturally assumed it was all related to her second pregnancy. Shortness of breath developed in late June. Matt Dwenger, manager of rehabilitation services at Joint Township District Memorial Hospital in St. Marys, rushed to the emergency room after learning his wife was coming in.
Tests indicated the possibility of pneumonia or a blood clot in the lungs. Medication failed to clear up the problem so a chest tube was inserted to drain away the fluid.
"A doctor came from Lima to see me," she says. "Given the pregnancy, he recommended I go to Cleveland or Columbus. In retrospect, that should have been a warning the problem involved more than pneumonia."
One test after another followed her Fourth of July transfer to Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus. Cancer was among numerous possibilities considered.
Beth Dwenger remembers the sunny July day when a doctor entered her hospital room with six medical students in tow. He presented the diagnosis in straightforward fashion.
"Cancer -- it hit me like a ton of bricks," she says, closing her eyes. "Matt was at work and I was alone. I remember telling myself I have to keep my composure in order to hear what the doctor had to say."
Her parents arrived minutes later and the doctor also spoke to them, explaining the need for more tests to determine whether the malignancy had spread.
"The next days were just as trying," she says. "It seemed as if the doctor had more bad news every time he entered the room. I thought about putting up a sign -- Enter with good news only."
Tests indicated the cancer had indeed spread to the lungs and spine. On a scale of one to four, results indicated the cancer had reached the most advanced stage four.
She was transferred to nearby James Cancer Hospital, where doctors prescribed immediate chemotherapy. Oncologist Dr. Ewa Mrozek assured the worried parents the pregnancy has reached a point where selected drugs would not hurt the baby.
Specialists carefully monitored the progress of the baby due Nov. 4. Beth Dwenger was admitted to the hospital several times before the second round of chemotherapy commenced Aug. 8.
"I didn't feel good that day and contractions started the next day," she says. "The doctor ordered a Caesarean section, but Troy Paul had plans of his own."
She felt a gush of water while being transferred to the obstetrical department but the oxygen mask muffled her words. The baby came quickly much to the amazement of staff members who lifted the blanket to discover he was entering the world. A passing doctor climbed onto the stretcher to complete the delivery without donning a gown to cover his shirt, tie and slacks.
Nurses whisked the 2 pound, 63Ú4 ounce baby to the neonatal intensive care unit. The young mother had a chance to see her son the following day and marveled at his size.
"He is so beautiful even if he has more hair than his mom," she says with a proud smile. "And he is doing so well."
Doctors changed the chemotherapy protocol to more potent drugs that cannot be administered during pregnancy. Subsequent tests indicated they had little if any effect on the malignancy. She is now receiving different weapons from the cancer-fighting arsenal. Each trip to Columbus provides another opportunity to visit Troy Paul, who now tips the scales at 31Ú2 pounds.
"I have yet to ask the big how long question," she says. "The response would only be an educated guess; only one person knows the length of time all of us are here. I'm fighting because I want to watch our children grow."
Matt Dwenger pats her arm and admits cancer has put everything into perspective.
"Getting up late, having the car break down or discovering something broken were big things," he says. "We spend far too much time sweating the small stuff in life."
The Dwengers now enjoy each day to the fullest, whether it be sitting outside together in the sunshine, savoring pretty weeds Gretchen plucks or enjoying quiet times without a need for words. They appreciate the support of family, friends, acquaintances and her husband's co-workers who try to lighten the load with cards, meals, gifts and prayers.
"So many prayers have been offered on my behalf both here and as far away as England," Beth Dwenger says. "If the prayers were laid side by side they would reach around the world or at least all the way to heaven."