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Mormon mom battling breast cancer during pregnancy relies on LDS faith

Lunch time had just ended, and Heather Choate, 29, was sitting on the deck in the backyard of her Colorado home one summer afternoon, watching her five children play. Choate, then 10 weeks pregnant, used the time to ponder the adventures that would accompany adding another member to the family. But a phone call quickly brought Choate to her knees in prayer as her thoughts turned to the safety of her baby and whether she would be around to raise her children at all.

Earlier that week, during her first prenatal checkup, Choate had expressed concern about a lump she had found three months prior. An ultrasound was conducted, along with a biopsy of the lump. A few days later, on that summer afternoon, Choate learned she had stage 3 breast cancer.

Choate told the Deseret News she felt "just an overwhelming amount of shock and disbelief" when she received the news in July 2014.

Although Choate had known cancer was a possibility, she had believed the lump was likely benign.

"They told me, 'You're young. You're only 29 years old. You're in great health. It's probably nothing,’ ” Choate said. "That's what the doctors were telling me even as they did the biopsy."

But cancer had become her reality, and with tears streaming down her face, Choate, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, turned to her faith.

"As soon as I received the news that I had cancer, immediately I just went to the Lord in prayer, just right there on the deck," Choate said. "I knew I had to turn to the Lord instantly because this was too much. It was too big for me to possibly understand or know what to do."

Choate and her husband, Ben, soon meet with a surgeon who explained that Heather's type of cancer was hormone positive, meaning it feeds off of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are especially high during pregnancy.

The surgeon explained that the cancer could develop even more rapidly and possibly spread to other parts of her body while she was pregnant. He recommended terminating the pregnancy immediately.

"I suspected before we met with him that it might be a possibility, and I already knew that I wouldn't do that," Heather Choate said. "So I told him right then and there that wasn't an option for us, and he said, 'Well, if you keep going like this, the results won't be good. You are risking your life.’ ”

Doctors then conducted a biopsy of Choate's lymph nodes and found cancer there as well, increasing their concern for Choate's health.

Heather and Ben Choate were bombarded with suggestions and opinions from friends and family. But, ultimately, the couple recognized the importance of discussing their next steps between themselves and with God.

"My husband and I were just on our knees before him, asking him to help us, to guide us, to protect the baby," Heather Choate said. "We just knew that we had to accept his will and knew that he was a loving God, that no matter what happens, it would all work out in the end."

Although Ben Choate worried about making the right decision, he knew that the most important counsel would come from a loving God.

"Basically, my thoughts were, 'I just need a quiet moment to just talk to Heather, talk to Heavenly Father and then receive some counsel,’ ” he said. "It was difficult trying to hush all the noises around us so that we could listen to the Spirit. It was difficult, but that's what we strove for."

After much prayer, the Choates made the six-hour drive from their home in Bayfield to Denver to meet with an oncologist who had successfully treated pregnant women with breast cancer. At the oncologist's recommendation, the Choates decided to pursue a treatment plan that included a type of chemotherapy that would not harm the baby.

"We were definitely relying on the Lord and trusting in those promptings that we received," Heather Choate said. "We felt really good about this oncologist, and we knew that was some kind of divine light bulb going off."

Choate began treatment and drove to Denver every three weeks for chemotherapy. She received four treatments over 12 weeks, bringing Choate into her second trimester. Each time she was treated, a high-risk OB-GYN staff monitored the baby.

Although doctors had told Choate the treatment would be safe for her baby, she was still frightened.

"I just remember being so concerned for the baby," Choate said. "I knew what the doctor had said, that it was safe, that there would be minimal effects on the baby, but there’s still that fear and wanting to protect the baby and keep the baby safe. I wasn’t in the position that I could guarantee that she would be safe, and that was another time when I just really had to turn it over to the Lord and say, 'I feel kind of like the mother of Moses, putting my baby out on the water, and just trusting that you will keep the baby safe because I can’t.’ ”

While receiving treatment, Choate was weak and unable to care for her children, ages 1 to 8, on her own. During this time, members of the Choates' LDS ward and family members stepped in to help.

"It was challenging, but it was amazing how well-supported we were by the Lord and also by his earthly angels," Choate said. "I'm one of those people who likes to do everything myself, very independent, and had a hard time accepting help from other people. So learning to let go and say, 'Yes, come and clean my bathroom, clean my kitchen' … was really a beautiful lesson for me to learn to let other people help me."

Once Choate reached 27 weeks in her pregnancy, she had a left-breast mastectomy. Doctors were prepared to deliver Choate's baby if any signs of stress were detected during the surgery. This experience was another that Choate recounts as a terrifying learning opportunity.

"I think one of the most difficult but also the most beautiful moments was saying goodbye to my husband as they were wheeling me back into the operating room," Choate said. "Not having him right there was really difficult. I just felt the presence of the Lord, … that even though I felt alone, I wasn't. I know sometimes we hear that in church, but I just absolutely knew it without a doubt."

The surgery went well, and an early delivery was not necessary. Choate spent the next few weeks recovering, and she delivered Kiery Celeste Choate on her due date, Jan. 6, 2015.

"It was an incredible miracle," Heather Choate said. "She was born healthy, strong. She was 8 pounds 6 ounces, had dark hair, lots of hair, more than I did."

Heather and Ben Choate said they could not have endured this trial without having faith in their Heavenly Father.

"It was paramount, and it's continued to grow," Ben said. "It's just amazing. God knows us well enough to give us the trials that are going to help us become the most we can, and I believe that this has definitely helped us in that regard."

After Kiery's birth, Heather Choate received CT scans, which had not been safe to conduct during the pregnancy, to determine if the cancer had spread or diminished during treatment. The scans did not detect any cancer.

Although the scans were clean, Choate is finishing another round of chemotherapy and will continue working with doctors throughout the year to treat any undetected cancer.

Choate said the challenges of the past year have taught her what it means to be a mother.

"I was willing to give my life if I had to so that my baby would live," Choate said. "I just knew in my heart of hearts that's what being a mother is to me. It's being willing to give everything to your child out of love and to give them the very best that you can."

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @Sarah_DNews