For Ashley Bridges, life was good. She and her boyfriend, Jonathan Caughey, were in love and along with her young son Braiden, they were excited to become a family.
The only distraction was her aching knee, which began bothering her in spring 2012.
Bridges described the “multiple trips” to the doctor’s office. “The first appointment was like, ‘I think there’s something wrong with my knee. It’s achy sometimes but then it goes away.’ ”
The doctor told her it was probably just arthritis or bursitis. Then she went back a couple of months later and was told it’s “something you’re going to have to live with.”
This went on for over a year until finally Bridges could not walk anymore and was referred to a specialist in October 2013. But before she made it to the specialist, the pain became so intense she had to go to the hospital.
“I had excruciating pain in my knee and my toes went numb. So I went to the hospital and they did an X-ray,” she said.
They had just wheeled Bridges back to the waiting room to wait for the results when they rushed her back into a room and said the doctor needed to speak with her. The doctor came in and said, “You have bone cancer.”
A cancer known as osteosarcoma. She was just 24 years old and in shock from the news. Bridges couldn’t believe what she was hearing,
“I was like, no. ‘Cause who thinks of when their knee hurts that they have bone cancer?”
Bridges still gets emotional when she talks about how long it took to get her eventual diagnosis.
“I’m angry,” Bridges said, tears welling in her eyes, “but there’s really nothing we can do about it now. The doctor that I went to repeatedly and repeatedly telling him something wasn’t right probably cost me my life. This is a very aggressive cancer. I could have had more time.”
Bridges underwent surgery to replace her knee and remove the majority of her femur. The doctors also said she should start chemotherapy immediately, but there was a very big risk.
Bridges was already 10 weeks pregnant with a baby girl.
“They told me what would likely happen to Paisley, that you know, she most likely wouldn’t make it and I just knew. It wasn’t a choice to me. It was like this is what needs to be done. She’s first. I’m not going to kill a healthy baby because I’m sick. There’s nothing wrong with her. Her life is just as important as mine if not more important. I mean as a mother my job is to protect my kids.”
Unwavering in her decision to delay treatment — a choice that could ultimately cost her life — she knew Caughey and her mother would support her no matter what.
Bridges’ mother, Renee Thomas, said her daughter has always been strong-willed and this decision didn’t surprise her. “I always tell her it’s not over ’til it’s over,” she said. “You never know. We might get that miracle”
But after giving birth to Paisley in July, a full body scan revealed the cancer had spread throughout Bridges’ body, even into her brain.
“When they told me that, I think oh my gosh, I am really dying. I’m not going to beat this. And then I am sad for about a week and then I get back to OK, well it’s not over yet. And then I’ll be good and then I’ll get some more bad news that it spread through my whole entire body. And then that will knock me down for about a week and then I’ll bounce back.” But Bridges admits it’s hard to be in pain all the time.
Bridges’ doctors say she has months to live, but she still has goals.
“I am really pushing for Paisley’s first birthday. This is what I do. I do October, OK, I just got to make it to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving comes around — OK, let’s just go to Christmas. Then Christmas comes and Braiden’s birthday is in March, so I’m going to make it to Braiden’s birthday. I’m just going to keep setting little goals for myself and we’ll see.”
After the terminal diagnosis, Bridges and Caughey moved their wedding date up a couple of months to this past November. Bridges brightens when she talks about her wedding day. Braiden, 6, got to walk her down the aisle.
“It just went by so fast. If I could sum that day up it would just be magical. Magical. Loved it. Loved seeing all my friends, my family all together.”
Lindsey Natzic-Villatoro, owner of Love Song Events and Photography, planned the wedding in just a few weeks and has become a source of support for Bridges and her family. She also has photographed Bridges’ recent milestones — from her pregnancy and the newborn to her engagement and holiday pictures — documenting many of life’s firsts.
Natzic-Villatoro, a mother of three, sees Bridges as the perfect example of what motherhood is all about.
“I think that this has helped express to others who have never had children the depth of actually a mom’s love — the selflessness. It’s just like the best example that she has shown the entire world. So for that, she is definitely one of the most bravest people that I’ve ever met.”
For Bridges, the memories and photographs are invaluable.
“It means everything. My kids are going to have these memories. My husband’s going to have these. And my kids are going to be able to look at these forever.”
When asked about what her legacy might be, Bridges softly breaks down and says, “I want my kids to know how much I love them and how much I fought for them.”
Stephanie Elam and Traci Tamura