Paula Takacs had just had her first baby, and everything seemed perfect.
The pregnancy had gone smoothly, the labor was short and relatively easy, and her newborn son, Gray, was a healthy 8.2 pounds.
Paula and her husband, Geof, were coasting along in the sleepy-but-happy haze of new parents.
Life revolved around "trying to get the little guy on a schedule, late-night feedings, diapers - the normal routine," said Geof. "That would all change."
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Just days after giving birth, it became apparent Paula's body was not recovering normally. She had been physically active and her weight gain was within the recommended range, but Paula's abdomen still looked as though she was carrying a baby.
Initially, her doctor thought it was fibroids, a common noncancerous growth of tissue found in the wall of the uterus.
Tests revealed a much more ominous diagnosis: liposarcoma, a cancer that originates in fatty tissue, usually in the legs or trunk and mostly in adults between 50 and 65 years old. Paula was only 30.
"I really never thought (it could be) cancer," said Geof. "I didn't think tumors could get that big without a patient having other side effects. Other than some distension, Paula was healthy."
"No one in my family had any idea what liposarcoma was," said Paula, 37.
Geof, 36, a research analyst with Babson Capital, immersed himself in the study of sarcoma.
"I can remember sitting at the computer late at night, holding Gray in one arm, balancing the dictionary on my leg and just poring over information," said Geof. What he learned was not promising.
Liposarcoma is one of more than 50 types of soft-tissue sarcoma, which aren't common. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 10,500 new cases of soft-tissue sarcoma are diagnosed each year in adults and children in the United States, which accounts for about 1 percent of new cancer diagnoses. Relatively few doctors have experience treating sarcoma, and traditional cancer treatments often are ineffective. On Dec. 14, 2004, barely a month after she had delivered Gray, Paula had about 22 pounds of tumor removed from her abdomen and pelvic area.
"The amazing thing was that normally, by that size, tumors overtake numerous organs; however, (the doctors) believed that my son had acted as a shield that pushed the tumor out of the way and kept it from attaching," said Paula.
Paula left the hospital optimistic, but her journey was only beginning.
She began chemotherapy in January 2005 and struggled battling cancer with her role as a mother.
Eventually, the family adjusted, and for the next five years the Takacses settled into a routine revolving around CT scans at three-month intervals. The scans often were followed by surgery to remove suspicious nodules or additional tumors, and radiation.
In the meantime, Paula continued to play tennis on a team at Carmel Country Club, the family took short vacations, Gray played sports and began kindergarten at Charlotte Latin.
"We lived in our three-month increments, and we have found ways to create normalcy," said Paula.
Treatment became more challenging in the past year, when a scan uncovered three new tumors just a few months after her last surgery. For now, due to the position of the tumors, doctors have advised against surgical removal. The Takacses found hope and support at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
"It was the most inspiring place I'd ever been. They had so many ideas," said Paula. Just a few months later the Paula Takacs Foundation for Sarcoma Research was created.
With assistance from close friend and attorney Jeff Grady and his law firm, Katten Muchin Rosenman, the foundation established official nonprofit status in September, allowing it to receive tax-deductible contributions.
Paula and a planning committee currently are preparing for their first fundraiser, the Sarcoma Stomp 5k run April 2.
The foundation's goals are to raise money for sarcoma research, as well as increase awareness. It's a mission that has required Paula to talk openly about what had been a private battle. She and Geof wanted Gray, now 6, to have as normal a life as possible.
Paula is enrolled in a clinical trial for the chemotherapy drug trabectedin and drives to Charleston, S.C., for 24-hour infusions once a month. So far, results have been mixed.
"It's hard not to be envious of other people's lives who live cancer free," said Geof. "But this whole experience has been a testament to the kindness of people. From meals when we needed them to setting up a play date for Gray, the kindness and generosity of the human spirit has truly amazed us."