Eleven-month-old Daisy Tilton, bless her heart, wobbles around the backyard, staring and laughing at her high-stepping tiny feet the way babies do — happily mystified, it seems, that she no longer has to crawl to get around.
Nearby, her big brother, Nile, just 5, hands tape to his mother and asks her to tape him up so he can try to escape.
“Please, Mommy, ” he says as Daisy shakily bends down to pick up a stone and then begins to put it in her mouth.
“No, no, honey,” Tara Tilton says, running over to gently take away the stone from the giggling little one who has developed an uncanny knack for getting ahold of things she shouldn’t.
“Mommy, tape me up,” Nile pleads as the family dog, Martini, a Shih Tzu, barks, apparently in support of Nile.
“OK, OK,” Mommy grins, petting Martini and then taping her son’s arms loosely to his sides with a see-through adhesive.
Eight o’clock in the morning. With breakfast out of the way, the 36-year-old mother enjoys a day off from work playing with her children behind her two-story, southwest Las Vegas home. There is a swing set with a slide, a swimming pool with a safety fence, a toddler’s-size bridge over a shallow gully — and if Tilton feels like cooking, there’s also an outdoor kitchen.
At first blush, she personifies the suburbanite who’s managed to escape all of life’s harsh realities. That sense is only punctuated by the fact that she has a doting, successful businessman husband who was her college sweetheart, and a frequent, beautiful smile, one showing off perfect teeth — a smile that helped her win a marketing position with Colgate.
But the University of Iowa graduate knows as well as anyone that sometimes reality bites — hard.
Four years ago, when she was just 32, she found a tiny lump in her breast that turned out to be breast cancer. What would follow, a double mastectomy and debilitating chemotherapy, severely tested her usually positive outlook on life.
And yet on this day, a week before Mother’s Day, Tara Tilton talks about how lucky she is, that if she was of another generation, her beautiful, gorgeous Daisy, the child she calls her “miracle baby,” probably wouldn’t be alive today.
“I was so fortunate that I was able to freeze my eggs before I had chemotherapy,” she says, noting how the toxic cancer treatment essentially poisons a woman’s eggs, basically rendering her unable to have healthy babies.
Even if the in-vitro fertilization process that the Tiltons underwent was tried 15 years ago, according to Dr. Said Daneshmand, the Fertility Center of Las Vegas practice director who worked with the couple, their chance of successfully having a baby was only about 15 to 20 percent, compared to around 80 percent today.
“No one wants to have her problem,” he says, “but she and other women who have cancer today are fortunate we’ve come so far in fertility treatment.”
The process still amazes Tara’s husband, Kevin Tilton, who supplies LexisNexis computer software to government agencies and law firms.
“It’s so amazing what can be done today,” he says. “Tara and I always wanted more children and now we can.”
Eggs were removed from Tara and fertilized in a test tube with the sperm of Kevin. The resulting embryos were then frozen and stored. In 2013, when doctors judged her healthy enough, an embryo was transferred into her uterus.
She became pregnant 10 days later.
“We’re thinking about having one more baby,” says 36-year-old Kevin Tilton. The couple still have six embryos frozen.
This Mother’s Day, as they play with their children, the Tiltons say they hope they’ll spend most of their time looking forward, but they know it will be impossible not to also remember how they got to this place and time.
Tara Tilton was showering after a 2010 gym workout in Sedona, Ariz., when she felt something hard, “like a peanut,” in her right breast. On the road delivering Colgate sales pitches to dentists, she fell asleep in her motel room that night not believing what she had felt could be breast cancer.
“I was so young and I always worked out, ate the right things, didn’t really have any of it in my family,” she recalls.
When she got home, her husband said she should get the growth checked out just to be safe.
Soon after Dr. Souzan El-Eid, a breast surgeon with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada and director of the Summerlin Hospital Breast Care Center, examined Tilton’s breast, she was apprehensive. She ordered a biopsy. A couple of days later it came back positive for cancer.
“I bawled like a baby,” Tilton recalls. “I totally freaked out. I worried about dying. I wanted more children.”
El-Eid told her about banking her eggs before chemotherapy. And after more tests she told Tilton her cancer was Stage 1, that it hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes. The doctor also said Tilton needed only a lumpectomy on one breast, that the cancer was not of the most dangerous genetic types.
Wanting to be as safe as possible, however, Tilton opted for a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
“I know it can still come back somewhere, but I’m trying to reduce my chances,” Tilton says.
The news after El-Eid performed the 2010 surgery was good. Earlier tests were confirmed — there was no sign the cancer had spread. As El-Eid finished her surgery, plastic surgeon Cameron Earl began the reconstruction that took almost a year to complete.
“I like what I have now,” Tilton says. “And these babies are never going to sag.”
Kevin Tilton marvels at how his wife got through chemotherapy that was monitored by Dr. Paul Michael.
“We were lucky we had great doctors all the way through this challenge,” he says. “It’s all kind of a blur, now. We try not to think about it.”
He still gets choked up talking about a treatment for a disease that he said made him realize how fragile life is.
“Even though basically all her energy was gone, Tara was still so good with our son, Nile,” he remembers. “She created a magical world for him, singing ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ ‘Row, Row, Row, Your Boat’ so he’d have fun while we were in the car. Nile was only 1 when his mommy got sick, but I still think he knew his mommy was sad, but she wouldn’t let herself get down too far. That was the first time I realized just how strong she is.”
Before Tilton began her chemotherapy, relatives told her about Penguin Cold Caps, which are so cold when worn they keep hair follicles from dying. “We got a bunch of them and I always kept them over dry ice and they really worked,” Kevin Tilton says. “I was glad to have something to do. As soon as one got too warm, I gave her a colder one to wear.”
Once the Tiltons decided to use their frozen embryos, they couldn’t believe their good fortune.
“I got pregnant so quickly,” Tara Tilton says. “When a doctor asked how I felt about having a daughter, I couldn’t stop bawling like a baby. He said he hoped my tears were tears of joy. They sure were. I always wanted a little girl.”
Kevin Tilton says that since his wife’s bout with cancer he believes she lives more in the moment.
“I want my children to live life by the day and enjoy it,” Tara Tilton says. “I remember how my own mom worked so hard to make everything an adventure, how encouraging she was. I definitely want to do that for my children.”
On Mother’s Day, Tara Tilton is sure she’ll think about how her own life has changed.
“When you have children, you realize you now have a love for someone you could never before imagine. You realize that there’s no end to this love. Of course, you’re committing yourself to zillions of years about worrying about another individual. Daisy and Nile are always on my mind now. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.