“I told them, ‘I’m moving in,’” she said. “I had to be there.”
Elaine’s daughter, 37-year-old Michelle Lalonde, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in March. A devastating blow, it was the latest in a series for the family over the past year.
Michelle’s twins, Avery and Samuel, were born nine weeks early, and had to spend almost two months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
While in intensive care, doctors discovered Avery had a heart defect and required surgery. At four months old, Avery had her heart surgery, and the operation was a complete success. But a week before the surgery, Michelle’s cancer was found.
Elaine had been living in Vinings after her retirement from Indiana University. That ended pretty much as soon as the twins went into intensive care. Along with the Lalondes’ four-year-old daughter, Kennedy, someone was going to help with the kids while Michelle fought her disease, and she wasn’t going to let it be anyone but her.
Nick Lalonde is Michelle’s husband of eight years and a sports producer at CNN. The 35-year-old describes Elaine as a godsend.
“She’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to get through this,” he said.
All three of the adults in the house are glad the children are so young. The twins won’t remember a thing, and even Kennedy only knows in vague terms what is going on. She knows her mother is sick, and she wants to help, too.
Elaine said Kennedy fetches bottles for her — assisting with the babies in her own small way — and telling her mom she will feel better. But she also acts out, not completely understanding the new world around her, but knowing that something is wrong.
The family hails from Indiana but moved to Cobb for a job opportunity five years ago.
After her second round of chemotherapy Wednesday, Michelle knew she’d essentially be comatose by Mother’s Day. But she and Nick keep a positive attitude no matter what.
“I’ll be killing the cancer a little each day,” she said.
They both shaved their heads last week, the hair landing on the wooded planks of their back deck.
“We’re on the same team,” Nick said. “When her hair grows back, I’ll let mine grow back.”
With his stress level at a fever pitch for nearly a year, Nick jokes that the hair was going gray anyway. He also wears a pink bracelet every single day as another show of support.
The type of breast cancer Michelle has is known as HER2-positive. While an aggressive form of cancer, there are specialized treatments that have been found very effective against it.
“The doctors were happy it was HER2-positive,” Michelle said.
She’s scheduled for six treatments of chemotherapy and 12 medication sessions, which last until the end of July. Then she will have surgery and reassess the situation.
Facebook proved a useful tool for the family. They’ve connected with cancer survivors all over the country and with their family back in Indiana. People they hadn’t talked to in years reached out to them after learning the news.
Michelle’s sister, Kristie Orr, and her husband set up a fundraising site for the family, which can be found at YouCaring.com/HelpMichelleFight. The family has health insurance, but out-of-pocket expenses are enormous.
Coworkers are equally supportive. Michelle intermittently returns to her job as an executive assistant. Her first day back from maternity leave was when she found out about the cancer. But on a recent day at work, she was shocked to find the entire office wearing pink in her support. Even neighbors pitch in by bringing meals to the family.
“There are a lot of positives,” Michelle said.
Michelle remembers days when she’d be playing with her kids and staring at her cellphone at the same time, only halfway paying attention. That doesn’t happen anymore.
As tough as things were in the early days after the diagnosis, the Lalondes were more worried about their daughter’s surgery than the cancer.
“It’s your kid; she’s so little,” Nick Lalonde said. Avery is back at home now after the successful surgery.
They say the children are their strength,; the twins and Kennedy are why they want to beat the cancer.
“It’s all about you until you have kids,” Nick said. “Then it’s all about them.”
There is a little irony in the sequence of events leading to Michelle’s diagnosis.
Because the twins were born so early, they had difficulty breast feeding and Michelle decided to give it up after a few months. As her milk dried up, that’s when she noticed a lump.
“The twins coming early saved my life,” she said. “I call them my miracle babies.”
Doctors at first thought it could be benign, one even telling her she didn’t have anything to worry about. But after tests were conducted, the awful truth couldn’t be avoided.
But, if she hadn’t had the twins, the lump may not have been discovered until later, perhaps not until she reached Stage 4.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Michelle said. “I believe that even more now.”
For now, the Lalondes are taking things day by day. Nick says there is only one outcome.
“We are going to beat this,” he said. “We are going to get through it. It’s not an option not to.”
Elaine loves being able to play such a close role in raising her grandchildren. She says Michelle is her strength and knows the role is only temporary.
Taking a break from the twins and Kennedy, Elaine admits things are still hard for her.
Fighting back tears, she says there is a knot of fear that won’t go away until the cancer goes too.
“I think that’s just a mother,” Elaine said. “I have to be here; I just can’t be anywhere else. She needs me, and I need her as much as she needs me. I don’t care how old she is, she’s still my baby.”