I Was Pregnant With Breast Cancer: One Survivor Shares Her Story

pregnant woman going through chemo

When Jennifer Johnson was five months pregnant with her first child, she found a lump in her breast. The results of a biopsy confirmed the worst: The then-27-year-old had invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive cancer that required treatment ASAP.

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"I could not understand how a baby could be thriving in my body, while this cancer was trying to kill me," Jennifer tells us.

Happily, it didn't succeed. Today -- 17 years after her diagnosis -- Jennifer is the mother of two healthy kids. Parker, whom she was carrying at the time of her diagnosis, is now 16. Emma, "our gift after cancer," says Jennifer, is 13.

Still, the harrowing experience is never far from Jennifer's mind. In 2004, she chose to have her other breast removed to reduce the risk of a new cancer. She also gave up a comfy corporate job to work for Young Survival Coalition (YSC), which provides resources, connections, and outreach to young women with breast cancer.

Below, in an interview with CafeMom, Jennifer remembers what it was like to share one of the happiest times of her life with cancer.

What were your biggest fears about going through treatment while pregnant?
I was so worried about Parker and what the treatments might do to him. I begged my oncologist to wait until after I delivered, but because my tumor was so aggressive, we had to move forward with chemo while I was pregnant. There were only 40 cases in the national registry of women who'd been treated for breast cancer while pregnant. The babies had all been born healthy. That's all the data I had! 

But then my pregnancy turned into a high risk one and we had extra ultrasounds to monitor Parker. It was terrifying to wonder what my treatments might be doing to our unborn child.

How did you decide which treatment to undergo?
I opted for a single mastectomy since I couldn't have the radiation that's required with a lumpectomy. 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.) 

My cancer was very aggressive, as it is in most young women, and growing rapidly ... There was a new drug, Herceptin (trastuzumab), in clinical trials but I didn't qualify with the pregnancy. The baby and I tolerated the "Red Devil" [a powerful chemo treatment].

Looking back, what was the biggest emotional, physical, or practical challenge you faced during this time?
There were so many. Mentally, I had to face my mortality at the same time as becoming a new mother. I was robbed a bit of Parker's pregnancy and first year because I was obsessed with the "what ifs." What if my cancer comes back? 

The unknown is so hard. Waiting for test results is nerve-racking ... I so desperately wanted to talk to someone who had gone through treatments while pregnant and I couldn't find anyone.

More from CafeMom: 13 Inspiring Breast Cancer Quotes by Women Who Have Fought Back (PHOTOS)

Young Survival Coalition (YSC) was just getting started, so I didn't have access to all of these amazing resources or a support system of women who knew what it was like to face breast cancer at a young age. I want to make sure that no other young woman has to go through this alone, so that's why I serve as a SurvivorLink peer mentoring volunteer through YSC. 

Physically, I had to accept my new scarred body. It changed how I dressed. How I saw myself. And my desire to be intimate. After my mastectomy, I was very insecure. I didn't want any tops that were form-fitting or low in the neckline. I was trying to hide how my body had changed.

I now see my scars as badges of what I went through.

The day after you finished treatment, you went into labor -- five weeks early. How did your cancer color this experience?
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. [My husband] 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.

jennifer johnson and son

How is your health now?
I consider myself "So far, so good." I know that breast cancer could rear its ugly head again, but the further out I get from my diagnosis, the more confident I feel. 

What does your son know about all you went through to have him?
Both of our kids know the story well. I coauthored Nordie's at Noon: The Personal Stories of Four Women Too Young for Breast CancerThrough the book, I had the opportunity to travel around the country speaking extensively about our experience. 

Parker is the reason I did everything I could to get well and Emma is our unexpected gift. They've participated in walks, helped me spread information at health fairs, and cheer me on as I train to ride 200 miles for the YSC Tour de Pink West Coast.

What insight can you offer other pregnant women struggling with a breast cancer diagnosis?
Just take each day as it comes. Ask questions. Get a second opinion and be comfortable with your medical team. 

As hard as it is, you can get through this. It's important to know that you are not alone. There's an entire community here to support you.

jennifer johnson and family

 

Images via iStock/mikumistock; Jennifer Johnson

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