Battling Breast Cancer While Pregnant

Jennifer with Parker when he was six weeks old, circa March 2000.

My husband, Matt, and I were happily expecting our first child, thinking about nursery patterns and what life would be like as parents, when our world was turned upside down.

At 27, I had no family history of breast cancer and was healthy and busy climbing the corporate ladder. I found a lump during a self exam and showed it to my obstetrician. Thankfully, my doctor took it seriously and had it checked out. Surprisingly, some doctors dismiss young woman thinking they are too young for it to be breast cancer.

November 22, 1999, just three days before Thanksgiving, is a day I will never forget. I was 27, 22 weeks (5 ½ months) pregnant when the surgeon told me those four words, “You have breast cancer.” My head spun and all I could think was, “Am I going to die? Is my baby going to make it?” It was hard to understand how a baby could be thriving in my body, while cancer was trying to kill me. What should have been one of the happiest times in our lives was spent researching everything we could on being treated for breast cancer while pregnant. At the time there were just 40 cases in the national registry. All of the babies had been born healthy but, in many cases, prematurely. Today, we know that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in pregnant and post-partum women, occurring once in every 3,000 pregnancies. In addition, nearly 4% of pregnancies are complicated by breast cancer, and 10% of breast cancer patients under 40 develop the disease while they are pregnant.

We visited with several doctors before making a final decision on treatment as the pregnancy complicated things just a bit. I am an overly organized, Type A person, so I needed a plan:

•    First – Surgery. I opted for a single mastectomy since I couldn’t have the radiation that is required with a lumpectomy during the pregnancy. I couldn’t have reconstruction at the time of surgery since my other breast was enlarged due to pregnancy. I also didn’t want to be under anesthesia any longer than necessary. (I had reconstruction four years later.)

•    Second – Chemo. My cancer was very aggressive (ER-/slightly PR+ and HER2+++), as it is in most young women and growing rapidly. Because of the aggressiveness of the tumor, I had to start chemotherapy during my pregnancy. There was a new drug, Herceptin® (trastuzumab), in clinical trials for Her2+ breast cancer, but I did not qualify with the pregnancy. The baby and I tolerated the red devil Adriamycin (Doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide).

Because I didn’t want to use my leave time before I delivered and needed to work as a distraction and for the income, I continued working, with reduced hours. The day after my last treatment, I unexpectedly went into labor five weeks early. I wore my wig in the delivery room to try to feel normal. It kept popping off, so I finally flung it across the room and let them deal with a bald pregnant woman. The doctor on call joked that we had matching bald heads. The room was full of neonatal doctors and nurses who anticipated that our son would need assistance. Matt and I both cried when Parker was born. He was perfectly healthy with a head of hair, which was our sign that he hadn’t been harmed by all of the treatments.

I didn’t want cancer to take away the experience of nursing, so the lactation experts worked dutifully with me, forgetting every time that I only had one breast to pump. Since I’d just finished chemo, they wanted me to “pump and dump” for at least three weeks. As much as I tried, my milk never came. It was just as well. I was tired and loved having Matt help feed Parker.

The precious baby we worried so much about is now a healthy 12-year-old that just started 7th grade. I know how fortunate I am to be here for his many milestones. I don’t take them for granted.

I am grateful for the profound impact YSC has made during the last 14 years. I was desperate to talk to another young woman who had gone through cancer treatments while pregnant when I was diagnosed, but it was hard to find someone in 1999. YSC and Hope for Two now connect young women facing this dreaded disease. My friends give my contact information to other young women, especially those who are pregnant with breast cancer. I am happy to help them and provide hope that they can get through this difficult journey.

We now know so much more about pregnancy during breast cancer and new targeted therapies are available. Progress is being made, but it’s still not good enough. I won’t stop advocating until we can prevent this disease from starting and spreading. Until then, I will be here to offer support to other women who, as one survivor so eloquently put it, have to, “wear my bra.”

Jennifer co-authored the award-winning book Nordie’s at Noon: The Personal Stories of Four Women “Too Young” for Breast Cancer (www.nordiesatnoon.com) with three other women who were diagnosed when they were 30 or younger.

Comments (9)
Categories: Guest Bloggers

9 Responses to Battling Breast Cancer While Pregnant

  1. Mardee says:

    Hi Jennifer. You don’t know me but I worked with your dad at the time of your diagnosis and I remember how devastated he was. We all cheered when your little guy was born and admired your bravery in the face of such difficult circumstances.

    So glad to hear both you and Parker are doing well all these years later.

    • Jennifer Johnson, YSC Kansas City Executive Director says:

      Hi, Mardee – Thanks so much for your kind words. I feel blessed to have Parker and my gift after breast cancer, Emma.

  2. Thanks for having this post! I’m 22 weeks pregnant and 3 weeks into my breast cancer diagnosis. It’s wonderful to hear survival stories of other women who have won against this disease.

  3. Jean says:

    This is just wonderful, Jen!

  4. Melissa M. says:

    Thank you Jennifer for your words. I too was diagnosed during pregnancy. I was at the wee beginning of my pregnancy when I received my diagnosis. I had a mastectomy and started chemotherapy in my 2nd trimester. I finished chemo one month prior to my delivery date. My baby boy was born healthy and on time. I’m now 5 years out and we’re both doing great! Life is Good.
    Keep doing what your doing. ~Peace, Happiness & H E A L T H~

    • Jennifer Johnson, YSC Kansas City Executive Director says:

      Hi, Melissa. I am so sorry you had to go through this while pregnant, too. Hooray for both of you doing well five years later. Hugs!

  5. Hi Jennifer, I met you at the last C4YW in New Orleans. I was so happy to connect with you and hear your story because my little miracle, Serenity, was only 10 months then. It was refreshing to hear that your son has just thrived despite it all, as my baby girl also endured chemo during my pregnancy and was delivered early. Serenity is now a sassy 16-month-old and is thriving as well. Thanks for sharing your story of hope!

    • Jennifer Johnson, YSC Kansas City Executive Director says:

      Hi, Roxanne! So good to hear from you. Can’t believe sweet Serenity is 18 months old now. Enjoy each moment! Hugs!

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