Ashley Hallford, 35, always dreamed of a fairy tale life.
She pictured meeting the man of her dreams and starting a big family, making memories to last forever.
Early on, that seemed to be the path her life was taking.
Ashley, who was raised in Douglasville, Georgia, met her husband, David, in kindergarten.
Years later, they reconnected at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and got married while still in college.
In 2005, Ashley graduated and went on to work at an attorney’s office, while David got hired by the fire department.
Life was evolving - but simple.
“We were really just trying to find our way,” she says. “We were establishing our careers, we got a house.”
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Shortly thereafter, they decided to start trying for a baby – and it happened immediately. Although shocked, they were over the moon.
About a month into her pregnancy, Ashley noticed a knot on the back of her head had become hard and painful.
“I actually discovered (the knot) right before I got pregnant,” she explains. “But I wrote it off to be a lymph node because it didn’t really hurt.”
As the pain continued to worsen, Ashley visited an ear, nose and throat specialist, who thought it was an infection in the salivary gland. She took some medication, and the lump shrunk. Ashley repeated this cycle of "medication and recovery" until she was about 32 weeks pregnant.
Then, something was wrong.
Stage 4 brain cancer
“This time,” she says, “it didn’t shrink. It got bigger.”
Concerned it was cancer, Ashley asked the doctor for a biopsy, which was performed the next day.
Her gut instinct was right – the lump was a cancerous legion.
But specialists were stunned.
“Pathologists from all over the country studied the lump,” Ashley says. “They all agreed that it was a rare and very aggressive, possibly hormonally fueled cancer. But nobody could diagnose it.”
At 33 weeks along, Ashley was induced so she could start treatment, and on Nov. 17, 2007 baby Harley was born.
“We were preparing for our son to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit,” she says, “but when he was born, he didn’t have to. He got to go home two days later. The NICU doctor came in to see us, and he said that never in his career had he seen a 33-week-term baby not go to the NICU, even for evaluation. That was just a miracle.”
It was the first of several miracles that the family never imagined possible.
Four days after giving birth, Ashley had surgery to remove the mass in her neck. It was the size of a softball and had grown fingerlike tumors that grew into her jaw muscle.
“Doctors tried to aggressively remove what they could,” she explains. “It took more than six hours, and I had lots of jaw muscle removed.”
The tumor was sent for evaluation, and it took five weeks to get results.
During that time, the cancer spread viciously - to her brain, both lungs and a spot on her liver. It was diagnosed as stage 4.
She's gonna die
“In January 2008, they found the brain tumor, and that prompted a full body scan,” Ashley explains.
“And that’s when other spots were found. At that point, they stopped trying to figure out what it was, saying, ‘we need to start treating her, or she’s gonna die.’ ”
Ashley was told that her malignant brain tumor was inoperable. It sat in the cavernous sinus, which, doctors said, was “in a place only God’s hands could go.” It sat directly on top of her optic nerve, and she lost all function in her right eye shortly after the tumor was found.
Doctors offered Ashley a strong regime of chemotherapy and radiation. So much radiation, in fact, that she received the lifetime maximum dosage in just six weeks.
About a month into treatment, doctors conducted scans to check her progress.
The tumors were not only growing, but multiplying.
“The report said that there were ‘innumerable tumors,’ ” Ashley recalls. “That meant that they couldn’t even count how many there were.”
Doctors came up with a new game plan. They switched her chemo to a different mix, and hoped for the best.
Ashley turned to her faith.
“In February or March 2008, at my church, they started praying and fasting, for the whole month,” she recalls. “I continued chemo through July 2008, and then had more scans to check progress. I was praying because if there was no change or things were worse, I would be out of options.”
Things didn't look good
Throughout this time, doctors advised Ashley to take a lot of pictures and make video journals for her son because things didn’t look good.
“So that’s what we did,” Ashley says. “That’s where we were at the end of July. They didn’t even know what they were battling, so there would be no other options.”
The day of her scans, Ashley was prepared to hear that her life was coming to an end. But the doctor’s words left her speechless.
“They said, ‘The radiologist report shows no evidence of disease present,’ “ Ashley says. “I was so dumbfounded by what she said, that I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ She said, ‘It means you’re in remission.’ ”
Medical oncologist Dr. Debra Miller said to her, “I never thought you would have made it.”
"Theoretically, with stage 4 cancer, you're not curable," Miller says. "I met Ashley when she was pregnant, when she had the neck mass. After her first round of treatment, more disease was found in her lungs, and she was retreated. After that, she's been disease free ... it's nothing short of miraculous."
Ashley continued chemotherapy for six more months, just to eradicate anything still lurking within. Every six weeks, she went for scans – and nothing ever showed up. During that time, Ashley’s right eye started to open up again as well.
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For the first 18 months of her son’s life, Ashley fought to save her own.
“I tried to get to know him, held him, I would give him a bottle or burp him,” she says. “But he’s the reason I fought. I didn’t want him to grow up without a mother.”
In July 2017, it will be nine years since Ashley went into remission. Her oncologist predicted she would live just weeks after her initial diagnosis.
“She said that God healed me,” Ashley says. “Did modern medicine play a part? Yes … but God definitely healed you, she said.”
Two years into her remission, Ashley and David talked to doctors about having more children. They advised against it, not knowing the effects of so much chemotherapy and radiation. A fertility doctor confirmed that Ashley was in full-blown menopause and that there was no way she would have a biological child.
In Feb. 2012, the doctor stopped all attempts to treat the couple.
“But two days later,” Ashley says, “I had blood work for throat surgery. I had to have this surgery regularly because of what the radiation had done, and they gave me some pre-op blood work. It came up that I was pregnant. The next day, they repeated the labs, and told me to go back to the fertility doctor – I was definitely pregnant.”
Everyone was “freaking out,” to say the least, but Ashley went on to deliver a perfectly healthy baby girl.
In May 2016, while going for her yearly brain MRI, Ashley was told to take a pregnancy test, which is standard operating procedure before a scan.
It was, once again, positive, after doctors stressed again that there was absolutely no chance of conceiving a third child.
In January 2017, baby Eli was born, perfectly healthy.
So what’s the explanation for the miraculous healing of a woman who was, medically, at death’s doorstep?
“I credit my recovery to God, 100 percent,” Ashley says. “I always had strong faith, but we’re only human. I still worried while I was sick. Part of me held onto it and worried, and another part of me gave it to God.”
Ashley uses her experiences as a platform to promote hope in the middle of dark circumstances.
“I just want to spread hope,” she says, “When I speak at churches, I speak about the fear. The fear and uncertainty, especially not knowing what I had. It’s scary.”
Understandably, Ashley’s mind-blowing story has been met with some skepticism and adversity.
“I had a woman say to me, ‘You were healed, God healed you. I had a young daughter who had cancer and died. Why didn’t God heal her?’ ” Ashley recalls. “I said to her, ‘I’m very very sorry you lost your daughter … that’s cancer, it’s horrible.’ ”
Regardless of the indiscriminate nature of cancer and loss in general, Ashley will not falter from spreading hope.
“I want to give people the strength to go on – even when it comes to infertility,” she explains. “And if that’s what I could do in life, I would die happy one day.”