LYNNWOOD — Apryl and Peter Roberts’ second daughter is sure to be a spirited little fighter. By the time she is born near the end of this month, her mother will have climbed Seattle’s Columbia Center, weathered life-shattering news, and endured several rounds of chemotherapy — all while pregnant.
On March 20, Apryl Roberts trekked up the skyscraper’s 69 floors in the Big Climb, an annual fundraiser for the Leukemia &Lymphoma Society. Her time was a respectable 16 minutes. In years past, unfettered by pregnancy, she raced up those 1,311 steps in a speedy 10 minutes, faster than her husband’s time.
“I want to do it again,” the 36-year-old mom said recently. Loved ones, friends and even strangers pray she will get that chance.
Two days after the climb, Roberts was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. It’s a rare and aggressive form of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, it accounts for only about 1 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States.
The day of the climb, Roberts already had undergone a biopsy. She had been treated with antibiotics for what a doctor believed was mastitis, an infection that often affects breastfeeding women. Two rounds of antibiotics didn’t resolve her symptoms, and an initial ultrasound didn’t find the cause of her pain and swelling.
As she climbed those stairs, she knew cancer was a possibility. “I was waiting for the news,” she said.
Roberts was calm and frank as she recently shared the dreadful diagnosis they received March 22 at the Swedish Cancer Institute in Edmonds. As her 2-year-old daughter Charlee napped in the family’s new home near Martha Lake, Roberts described how her oncologist, Dr. Eileen Johnston, didn’t mince words.
“She said I have stage 3 or 4 inflammatory breast cancer,” she said. That was followed by a dire forecast. Answering the couple’s toughest question, the oncologist told them Roberts has just a few years to live.
“I was in shock at first — the emotion of being told you’re going to die in two years,” Roberts said.
This, though, is a woman who left other Columbia Center climbers in her dust while seven months pregnant. In her husband, she has a partner devoted to their family and her well-being.
“He’s been amazing, researching diets, alternative medicine, anything he can. Everything is about finding how we’re going to survive this,” she said. “I don’t give up easily. I think I’m strong enough to fight this. I believe I can do it.”
Always an athlete, she was a distance runner on Washington State University’s track team and competed in cross country. One of six children, five of them girls, she grew up in Walla Walla. She and Peter were married there, on her father’s property, Aug. 8, 2015.
If there was any good news in her diagnosis, it was what Roberts called “almost perfect timing.” She was 30 weeks into her pregnancy when the cancer was discovered. Much earlier, she said, and chemotherapy could have put her developing fetus at risk.
Treatment began in short order. A day after the diagnosis, a port was installed in her chest for chemo treatments. Soon after that, she had a liver biopsy. On Tuesday, she had her fourth round of chemo.
The baby is due June 4, but will likely be delivered by May 31. After that, Roberts will get a different type of chemo.
She is exhausted and sometimes ill at the end of chemotherapy days. While Peter’s parents take care of Charlee, she and her husband start those days early at Swedish Cancer Institute in Edmonds. Blood tests come first, followed by a meeting with her doctor. With her husband at her side, she sits for hours during the chemo infusion.
Roberts feels like a fighter defeating a foe on those grueling days. “It’s weird to say, but I get excited for chemo day,” she said.
Johnston, Roberts’ oncologist, said that while a patient may have a lump, skin involvement is what defines a clinical diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer.
“It’s very challenging to detect early. It’s almost like a leukemia of breast cancer,” the doctor said Wednesday. Inflammatory breast cancer by definition is at an advanced stage, she said, adding that the disease is also very quick to appear. Johnston said that while rare, inflammatory breast cancer is more common among pregnant women.
Roberts will later get chemo drugs she couldn’t have as an expectant mom, but her pregnancy didn’t delay treatment. The regimen so far has been standard for her stage of cancer, Johnston said. “She’s taking good care of herself. She eats well and does everything right,” Johnston said. “That makes the whole story more heartbreaking.”
The doctor is as impressed by her patient’s mental toughness as she is by Roberts’ physical fitness. By their second appointment, once the couple had taken in the awful news, Roberts “had taken the gloves off” and was ready to do whatever it takes to battle the disease, Johnston said.
“I couldn’t ask for a better patient to be in a position to fight this for the best outcome possible,” she added. “And her husband, he is a rock.”
At home, Roberts rested a hand on her growing belly and talked about the new life inside her. “She’s a fighter. Not many babies go through chemo,” she said.
Their love story
The couple’s love story, now being tested by adversity, has been years in the making.
Edmonds native Peter Roberts has his own a business, Greenpoint Landscaping. He met the woman he would marry six years ago on the Match.com dating website. “It was her picture that got me at first. I didn’t think I had a chance,” he said Monday.
After college, Apryl DeBroeck had been a world traveler. She lived in San Diego, and moved to Hong Kong where she taught English. From 2006 to 2010, she worked as a chef on a private yacht. “That lifestyle is hard to walk away from,” she said.
When she felt it was time to settle down, she came home to Washington. Her mother was living on Bainbridge Island. Her first date with Peter, on Oct. 25, 2010, was at a Bainbridge restaurant.
He was struck by her beauty. That first night, he was almost too nervous to eat his dinner.
They became friends first. Both interested in fitness, they went on bike rides. Peter Roberts was part of Team in Training, the fundraising program for the Leukemia &Lymphoma Society, and had competed in triathlons. Soon his girlfriend was involved in the Columbia Center climb — and twice her times were faster than his.
“He’s been here for me,” she said.
Peter Roberts is now sustained by his wife’s courage. While up in the night worrying, he has seen her sleeping in peace. “That’s what’s getting me through,” he said.
Support they need
Apryl Roberts’ father, Mark DeBroeck, has traveled from Walla Walla for regular visits since her diagnosis. He sees the struggles behind the strength being shown by his daughter and son-in-law.
“Apryl’s courage when she’s faced with something of such phenomenal proportions is uplifting. She’s giving everyone else strength, but there’s a huge battle to fight,” DeBroeck, 57, said.
He sees his daughter juggle chemotherapy, the physical demands of pregnancy, and the needs of a 2-year-old who has food allergies. Charlee’s mom prepares all the little girl’s foods.
DeBroeck has watched Peter Roberts become an extraordinary father and helpmate. “Peter and Apryl became one in such a powerful way through this,” DeBroeck said.
Everett’s Jason Therrell and Peter Roberts have been friends for 20 years. “They’re both just absolutely wonderful people. I love them both,” Therrell said of the couple. “Neither had ever been married. They were probably looking for each other.”
To help his friends, Therrell started an online fundraising effort, “Apryl’s Big Climb,” on the GoFundMe website. His hope is that $100 will be raised for each step Apryl took during the Seattle climb, a goal of $131,100.
“Although no amount of money in the world will fix this for Apryl, this money will go a long way to providing health care for her and security for her family,” Therrell wrote on the site. As of Thursday, $17,769 had been raised.
Donors leave messages of hope: “Prayers for complete healing,” “Blessings and strength,” and many more.
“I think miracles happen and there’s a real chance,” Therrell said Monday. “They have a great group of friends and wonderful families.”
Those friends and loved ones celebrated at a surprise birthday party Apryl Roberts arranged for her husband, who turned 40 on March 30. “I had just gotten this diagnosis, but I decided nothing is going to stop this party,” she said.
On April 23, they moved from Lake Forest Park into their beautiful new house. By then, her long hair was falling out from chemo treatments. That night, Peter Roberts shaved his wife’s head — and clipped off his own hair.
“Maybe I was given this because I’m strong enough to fight it. I want to inspire people in any situation, not just cancer,” Apryl Roberts said. “I have this amazing baby inside me and I have this evil inside me, both at the same time. I don’t care what I have to do, I have to fight this for my family.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
Apryl Roberts is battling a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer as she awaits the birth of her second daughter. Donations to help the Lynnwood area family may be made at: www.gofundme.com/aprylsbigclimb