In August 2010, my husband Ryan and I were happily expecting our first baby when he noticed a small lump in my breast. A self-examination revealed a second larger lump. I mentioned this to my doctor at my first pre-natal visit and he referred me to the local breast center for an ultrasound. “It’s probably nothing,” he said, “but we should make sure.” Euphoric from hearing our baby’s heartbeat for the first time, we didn’t worry, but I made the appointment.
I could tell something was wrong during my ultrasound a few days later. The technician chatted easily while taking images of the first lump, the smaller one that my husband noticed. But her demeanor changed when she took the pictures of the second lump. At my teaching hospital, the radiologist had what felt like a parade of medical students come through to feel and compare the two lumps. I felt nervous, but brushed it aside, thinking, I’ll start worrying when someone tells me to worry.
The following Monday, I had a biopsy of the two lumps and just a day later, I got the call that we dreaded. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 32 years old and 12 weeks pregnant.
I have no history of breast or related cancers in my family and we were shocked and devastated by my diagnosis. We worried for my health but were terrified by what it meant for my pregnancy. That night, we consulted “Dr. Google” and found hopeful information. We also talked to my husband’s Aunt, an OB-GYN who practices in New Jersey. She assured us that I would be able to go through treatment for my cancer while carrying my pregnancy. Two days later, she jumped on a plane to fly halfway across the country to come with us to meet my medical oncologist for the first time.
My medical team was very supportive of our commitment to the pregnancy. We crafted a plan that treated my cancer aggressively but also gave the baby the best chance at a healthy life. Three weeks after my diagnosis, at 15 weeks pregnant, I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy surgery. Coming out of general anesthesia, I was greeted by an angel disguised as a nurse who had taken at least an hour round trip to let me hear our baby’s heartbeat. In that moment, I felt like my own heart started beating again too.
I started Adriamycin and Cytoxin chemo when I was 20 weeks pregnant, doing four rounds of treatment over 12 weeks. The treatments made me tired, but thankfully I was spared harsh side effects. I was able to keep working almost full time, continue with volunteer work, go on lots of walks with my two amazing dogs and practice prenatal yoga at a local yoga studio.
That first day of chemo was one of the hardest days in our journey. I shook when the nurse started administering Adriamycin, the “red devil” into my port with a huge needle. How can I put this poison in my body now, I thought. On the way home, I broke down in sobs. But just a few days later, we got to see the image of our beautiful baby happily waving at us on an ultrasound. Those images of her, the careful monitoring we got from my Maternal Fetal Medicine team, kept me going – especially in those early months before I could feel our baby move. Throughout the pregnancy, my incredible husband kept reminding me how important the treatments were. “This baby is so lucky to have you as her mommy,” he would tell me, aware of how guilty I felt for putting my baby through all of this before she was even born.
At 32 weeks, I had completed 12 weeks of AC chemo. At that point, a normal, non-pregnant woman with my type of breast cancer would start Taxol chemotherapy along with a targeted drug called Herceptin. During my pregnancy, the makers of Herceptin issued a warning that it absolutely should not be used in pregnancy. At that point, I made the decision to take a break in my treatment, to not deliver the baby early but let her come on her own, at term. It was a very personal decision made in consultation with all of my doctors, and it is the only change to my treatment due to the pregnancy.
On March 13, in the early morning hours, I went into labor just a few days before our due date. I labored at home for many hours, with my amazing husband supporting me. It was such a beautiful, blissful and exciting time. Our birth doula came to the house and we all made the decision to go to the hospital. With yoga and childbirth classes, I had prepared for an unmedicated childbirth and after several hours of laboring at the hospital, I was fully dilated and ready to push. After some time of pushing, we all realized that the baby was posterior, with her head turned toward my front rather than the back. I was determined to avoid surgery if possible, not wanting to further delay the start of my next round of chemo. So, I pushed for four hours, at which point my team became concerned about the baby’s health. After a few last pushes with a vacuum assist, we finally got to meet our beautiful baby girl.
We named her Alice Virginia, after the Aunt who provided us with so much love and support and after my grandmother. Alice was perfect, 7 pounds 7 ounces, alert and with a full head of beautiful hair. The relief and joy in the room at that moment is indescribable.
Three weeks after Alice was born, I started 12 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 33 days of radiation. My treatment continues with infusions of Herceptin every three weeks along with a daily dose of Tamoxifen, a hormonal drug. When I started back in treatment, I had to stop breastfeeding, as both the chemo drugs and Herceptin pass easily through breast milk. An amazing friend who had given birth a few months earlier had pumped and stored enough milk to feed Alice for months. Through an organization called Human Milk for Human Babies, we were able to find more generous women who gave us the amazing gift of donated milk. At almost seven months old, our baby has been fed only breast milk.
Just two days after I finished radiation, Alice, Ryan and I flew to Paris to celebrate the end of treatment, our fourth wedding anniversary, and the incredible birth of our baby. We spent two weeks recovering, laughing hard for the first time in a long time, crying with relief, eating delicious food and taking in the beauty of the city. Now life is getting back to a routine, with me back to work and feeling better every day. We’re all looking to the future now, hopeful that this cancer thing is just a small bump in a long, happy life together.