Elizabeth Joice was only a few months pregnant when she received a devastating diagnosis, the cancer she thought had been eradicated years earlier had returned.
Joice, 36, had already agreed to be a part of a documentary exploring each week of pregnancy called “40 Weeks” when she received her diagnosis. Director Christopher Henze said that after Joice learned of her diagnosis she was faced with a choice either to abort the pregnancy or continue it with limited options on how to diagnose and treat the disease.
Joice chose to continue her pregnancy and had her baby in January. But she died last month, six weeks after giving birth.
Joice was initially declared cancer-free in 2010, but the chemotherapy had pushed her into early menopause. As a result, Henze said both Joice and her husband, Max Joice, were amazed when she became pregnant last year.
Joice’s cancer, non-differentiated sarcoma, could be partially removed by operation. However, dyes used during scans could impact Joice’s pregnancy, so a full body scan was not done to see if there were other tumors. The Joices decided against more invasive scanning and treatment and hoped the cancer would not be virulent.
“Around week 25 or 26, they went through the process of removing it and [she] seemed healthy. We felt as positive as we could be,” said Henze, who, with his crew, had been following Joice through pregnancy and cancer appointments.
Joice appeared to love being pregnant even after she had to juggle morning sickness with cancer treatments, Henze said.
“I would do this for living if I could,” Joice told Henze in an on-camera interview. "I really enjoy pregnancy a lot ... all the stuff that’s been happening has all been really cool stuff."
Towards the end of the pregnancy, there were signs that the cancer had returned, as Joice had trouble breathing, Henze said. A scan revealed a mass in her lungs, and doctors ordered that Joice deliver immediately.
Joice’s daughter, Lily, was delivered by c-section in late January, six weeks early.
Dr. Joanne Stone, the director for Maternal Fetal Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, treated Joice and said there were signs during the c-section to suggest the cancer had returned.
"There were tons of tumor[s]," Stone said. "It had spread all over her abdomen."
Although Stone was worried about Joice's breathing, especially because of the mass in her lungs, she said the first thing Joice said when the breathing tube was removed was, "How’s Lily? How’s the baby?"
"Her first thoughts were not 'Am I OK?," said Stone.
Further scans revealed Joice had tumors throughout her abdomen. Although she was put into treatment, the cancer advanced rapidly and she died March 9.
When Joice first told Henze about the diagnosis, Henze said, he had hoped her story would be one of recovery and that she could have seen the documentary released.
“Her spirit is really beautifully positive. She’s so open and thoughtful and considerate and honest,” Henze said. “As a documentarian, that’s what you’re always looking for. With Liz, it was not only getting her honest feeling. ... I was brought into her family.”
Stone called Joice a "remarkable" person with a "sense of love and life." Stone recalled visiting Joice after she was released from the ICU and was meeting her newborn for the first time.
"She was holding the baby. Just the joy on her face was just incredible," said Stone. "She said ‘This is worth it. ... I would do it all again to have this child.'"