Chicago Mom Reclaims Her Life After Stage IV Cancer Diagnosis While Pregnant

Local Woman Reclaims Her Life After Cancer Diagnosis While Pregnant

Sitting on the couch of their Lincoln Square home, Chris and Lesley Duffy look like any other young couple managing two very busy toddlers, surrounded by a room full of colorful toys and puzzles. But life for them has been anything but ordinary.

Just a little over two years ago, Lesley, who was 28 weeks pregnant with her second child, began to show signs of confusion — struggling to find words that she had once grasped so easily to convey her quick wit and warm sense of humor.

After a battery of tests through Northwestern Medicine, Lesley was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, which had metastasized to her brain, bones, and liver.

“She had 26 tumors in her brain alone,” recalls Chris, “and everything was more complicated because she was pregnant. We had to make decisions quickly about what we were going to do.”

Duffy family: Lesley and Chris

Dr. Nisha Mohindra was the thoracic oncologist that was assigned to Lesley’s medical team. “Lesley’s case was unlike any I had ever seen or even read about,” says Dr. Mohindra. “There was no real data on how to proceed. But I felt this instant connection with her. Because we were so close in age, I kept thinking that if this was me — I would want my doctors to do everything they could to make me better.”

And so began Lesley’s two-and-a-half-month hospital stay where she endured more than most will ever in a lifetime: brain surgery, radiation, a heart procedure, chemotherapy, and loss of her independence and ability to communicate.

“Everyone was so invested in helping Lesley,” explains Dr. Mohindra. “I would call Chris every night to check in on Lesley when I was driving home from work. It made me realize how much we could get done when we were all focused on the single goal of making Lesley well.”

On Halloween, at 31 weeks pregnant, Lesley delivered her daughter Camden prematurely. While Lesley continued with radiation and began chemotherapy, Camden was cared for in the NICU at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Chris estimates that over the course of Lesley and Camden’s treatment, they were cared for by more than 1,000 physicians, nurses, palliative care specialists, and others. From neuro to oncology, OB-GYN and NICU, the incredible team of caregivers came together to find the best outcomes for this family.

“Lesley and Camden stayed in the hospital until December,” recalls Chris. “They let Lesley come home first and that gave me time to figure out what our routine would be. I think I had the cell phone number for every one of Lesley’s doctors.”

At the time of her release, Lesley had not spoken in months and was no longer able to care for herself. But on her second evening home, surrounded by a group of close friends, she spoke her first word. By the following March, she was well enough to travel to Mexico to surprise another friend for her 40th birthday.

“When she came home from the hospital, I was just hoping that we would get to a point where we wouldn’t need 24-hour care,” Chris says, glancing over at a teary-eyed Lesley who remembers very little of her hospital stay. “Never did I really think that we’d get back to where we are today, living a pretty normal life.”

With 4-year-old big brother Lachlan watching over her, sister Camden is a picture-perfect 2-year-old.

“Camden is really cute, so smiley,” says Lesley, beaming. “You’d never know that she came into the world eight weeks early.”

Duffy family: Camden and Loughlin

On Oct. 21, at the 32nd annual Friends of Prentice Benefit, the Duffys’ story of determination and strength was captured on video to showcase Lesley’s miraculous journey, as well as the relentless spirit of the Northwestern Medicine team to get Lesley back to the life she once enjoyed.


More from Make It Better: 

Ann Marie Scheidler

Ann Marie Scheidler is a contributing writer with Make It Better who has made a career writing about people, their favorite places, and the things they value most. Ann Marie, a pearl-loving yogi who has a thing for travel, lives in Lake Forest with her husband and five children.

Ann Marie is currently working with Camp Hope’s development committee on their annual fundraiser, scheduled for Nov. 10. Camp Hope is a summer camp run by the youth group at St. Mary’s Church in Lake Forest. The camp is targeted for disabled teens and young adults so that they can experience summer camp with their peers, while also giving their families a respite from the day-to-day care so they might be able to take a guilt-free vacation without their disabled child. Each camper is matched with two teenage buddies from the St. Mary’s youth group who offer one-to-one care and supervision for the camper for the week. “It’s the most selfless and amazing thing I’ve ever seen, and these buddies leave the experience knowing that they can do anything,” Ann Marie says.