by Jessica Webb Errickson
Since 2009, TLC’s The Little Couple has followed Dr. Jennifer Arnold and her husband, Bill Klein, as they navigate life’s unique challenges. What makes this couple stand out from a sea of all-too-similar reality stars is that they were both born with dwarfism.
After watching the couple grapple with fertility issues and endure the heartbreak of a failed surrogacy, viewers of the hit reality series shared the pair’s excitement as they fulfilled their long-deferred dreams of parenthood with the adoption of their son, Will, from China. Then, shortly after being matched with Will, the couple’s joy was doubled as they were also given the opportunity to adopt a little girl, Zoey, from India.
A few months before Jen and Bill were scheduled to pick up Zoey, Jen was shocked to discover that she had become pregnant. However, she learned early on that the pregnancy had not been viable.
“It turned out to be a molar pregnancy, which means that there was no chance it would ever become a fetus. It was just an abnormal growth of cells,” Jen tells Coping. “Molar pregnancies have a very small chance of turning into cancer, but we didn’t think that would actually happen in my case.”
When filming began for the sixth season of The Little Couple, Jen and Bill had set off as planned to New Delhi, eager to adopt their second child. However, what should have been a joyful journey took an unfortunate turn when Jen experienced a medical emergency that cut her trip short. She had developed abnormal vaginal bleeding. The hemorrhaging was so severe that she needed to seek medical attention. Shortly after holding her daughter for the first time, Jen was on a flight home to Texas, where she was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer resulting from her molar pregnancy.
“Not long after I was evaluated by my ob-gyn, we discovered that I actually had a tumor in my uterus that was growing uncontrollably and causing the bleeding,” says Jen. “It ended up being gestational trophoblastic neoplasia, which is a type of choriocarcinoma, and it was stage III at that point.”
While Bill and the kids were still in India wrapping up the adoption process, Jen wasted no time starting treatment. “There was just so much going on at the time,” she explains. “I went into survival mode.”
Though hesitant at first, Jen ultimately decided to allow TLC to film her journey in order to capture the reality of facing cancer as a new parent. “It’s so hard to be a mom with young kids and be dealing with cancer at the same time,” she says, “but it seems as if you don’t hear a lot about that particular struggle.” So Jen set out to change that, and the cameras kept rolling.
I went into survival mode.
Treating Jen’s cancer was tricky due to her skeletal dysplasia and resulting airway issues. After surgery to remove her primary tumor, respiratory complications landed her back in the hospital. And coming up with an appropriate chemotherapy dosage was an exhausting trial-and-error process, given Jen’s size in contrast with her age. She also experienced many of the common chemo side effects: hair loss, neutropenia, fatigue.
For someone like Jen, a busy neonatologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and the mom of two young children, fatigue can be especially frustrating. But she found an upside to her downtime.
“I got to spend more time with my kids – albeit very tired, laying-on-the-couch time – after bringing them home than I would have otherwise,” she explains. “And I think that really helped with our family’s bonding.”
Talking about cancer also played a big role in family bonding. “We definitely discussed it very openly with our kids,” says Jen. “With Will, we played doctor, we pretended to give each other shots – he may not have understood what cancer was, but he understood that Mommy was sick.” Jen showed the kids her bald head and her ports. She even let Zoey try on her wig. “We wanted them to understand as much as they could so that it wouldn’t be as scary to them.”
By the time TLC aired the sixth season of The Little Couple in March 2014, Jen had successfully completed treatment. As her life gradually returns to normal, she says, “My number one focus is my family and raising the kids to be happy, healthy, and successful adults.” She has also returned to her work at Texas Children’s, a job she’s very passionate about.
“[Cancer] is slowly becoming a distant memory,” Jen muses. “For me, life after cancer is about remembering that life is truly short – no pun intended – and we have to prioritize the things that make us happy, the things that we want to do, and the things that are important to us and to those we care about. I’m trying not to stress so much about little stuff, and I think keeping that mantra will serve me well in everything I do.”
Keep up with Jen, Bill, and the kids on TLC’s The Little Couple. Visit TLC.com for air dates and times.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2015.