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Last year, Max Joice completely ignored Mother’s Day. He had just welcomed a baby girl months earlier, only to lose his wife to cancer six weeks after the birth.
“Last year, I pretended it didn’t exist,” Joice told TODAY.com. “I got lots of messages on that day, but I was basically trying to be dead to the world."
This year, on May 9, the day before Mother’s Day, Joice will attend a charity walk to honor his wife, Liz, and raise awareness about sarcoma, the cancer she fought twice, and which ultimately took her life at age 36.
“Beyond that, I haven’t even come close to figuring it out yet,” he said of how he'll mark the day, which he'll spend with the couple’s now 1-year-old daughter, Lily, whom he considers his miracle baby.
Fertility specialists and other doctors had told Joice and his wife that getting pregnant would be impossible for Liz because multiple rounds of chemotherapy had left her infertile. But the joy they felt from their “miracle” pregnancy was tempered shortly later when, a month later, Liz felt a lump in the small of her back — in the exact spot as her previous tumor.
“I think we both kind of knew right then, but we convinced ourselves that it was something else,” he recalled.
A biopsy confirmed Liz’s cancer had returned. When she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Joice proposed to her on the the same day — with a ring he quickly fashioned from aluminum foil while Liz fumed in the next room thinking he was in the kitchen making himself a sandwich.
The couple got married a month later.
Liz went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy before and after surgeons operated to remove the tumor. She received a clean bill of health in 2011. When the cancer returned two years later, the couple consulted three different doctors, and got three very different recommendations.
“We knew the risks we were taking, but Liz had this incredible optimism and strength. The big fear we had was, what if we terminated this pregnancy, or do something to damage the fetus, and then find out the cancer wasn’t anywhere else? That it was this small, localized tumor that could be removed surgically?” Joice recalled. “If that happened, Liz loses the chance to bring a child to this world and I think that loss would be too great for her.”
Liz underwent surgery to remove the mass in her back, but held off on further treatment until after the baby's birth. Because radiation from full-body MRI scans would harm the baby, she also had to wait to find out whether the disease had been contained to one area, just like before.
Liz spoke about her decision in a documentary that captured her pregnancy, "40 Weeks," which also chronicled 12 other couples.
“There’s never going to be anything in my life that I’m going to do that’s going to be more amazing than this. It’s so awesome to think that,” she says in the film. “It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my whole entire life, and it’s the coolest and by far, the most unbelievable thing that I will ever do."
But shortly before the baby’s scheduled delivery date in February 2014, it became clear the cancer had spread. Liz had severe trouble breathing, and results from a shielded chest X-ray found the cancer all over one of her lungs.
Doctors immediately moved into action. On Jan. 23, 2014, Lily was born by C-section, during which doctors found the cancer had spread to Liz's ovaries, stomach and beyond.
“It was everywhere at that point,” Joice said.
He now recalls that period as “one of the oddest times of my life.” While Liz remained in the hospital for her cancer treatment, he brought Lily back home to the family’s New York apartment.
“It was so bizarre to be at both extremes of the peaks and valleys,” he said.
“I would go home and I would spend time with Lily, and it was the happiest moments of my life. We brought this beautiful creature into the world, and it was amazing. And then I’d go to the hospital to be with Liz, and it was like my world was ending. I felt guilty in both places.”
Liz eventually came home and spent nearly three weeks there. But on March 3, she pulled her husband aside and told him, “I can’t do this.” She didn’t want to die at home. They went back to the hospital and she passed away six days later.
The documentary "40 Weeks" was released in March, and Joice said he doesn't regret chronicling the journey.
"They gave us a chance to back out when Liz was diagnosed with cancer, but we thought, no, because if it does turn out bad, we have this incredible documentation of what our life was like when we were getting ready to bring Lily into the world," Joice said. "On a really selfish level, I just love that Lily is going to get to see her mom exactly how I did when she gets older."
Today, Joice, 34, said while he still experiences moments of "absolute grief," his entire focus is on his daughter, whom he describes as a dream child.
“There’s very little fussing, there’s very little crying. Her sleeping patterns are great. Her eating is great. It’s almost as if she knew that something really screwed up had happened and she took it easy on me,” he said. “'Oh, I’m not going to give him too much of a hard time, I think he’s been through a lot.’ It feels that way sometimes because it’s remarkable how easy she is to deal with and be around.”
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