'I Found Out I Was Pregnant & Had Breast Cancer in the Same Week': 1 Mom's Story

Before Stephanie L. was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she was a freewheeling traveler living abroad in Paris with her husband. Then during a trip home to Florida, she felt a lump in her breast. A week later, more news: 38-year-old Stephanie didn't just have breast cancer, she was pregnant.

The pregnancy was a complete surprise. The couple had not planned on having kids. Now she was facing breast cancer and pregnancy all at once.

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Stephanie's situation is rare -- breast cancer is found in about 1 in every 3,000 pregnant women -- and problematic, since many of the treatments for breast cancer aren't ideal for a developing fetus. As a result, Stephanie faced some tough choices where her own life and her unborn child's hung in the balance.

Her choice? To keep the pregnancy ... and fight the breast cancer, no matter what her doctors said. The Stir sat down with the mother of little Dominik to find out how she navigated this treacherous territory, and what other women can learn from her experience.

Learning you have breast cancer followed one week later by news of a pregnancy sounds completely overwhelming. What was it like for you?
I cry just thinking about it. Nearly every member of my medical team at the time initially brought up abortion as a possibility. My oncologist said, "I thought you hadn't planned on having kids." Which is true. But that's different than making a choice now that I could regret 20 years down the road. I was completely shocked by their laissez-faire attitude. I mean, here is a 38-year-old viable lady with no children, perhaps this being the sole and only chance in her whole life to now have one. It was a much bigger thing to think about than, "Well, do you want to abort -- yes or no?" My doctors lectured and lectured from a place of good intention perhaps, as in "we are trying to save your life." I felt as though I had one foot on a banana peel and one already in the grave, where I could have easily been led by the hand and bada bing, no baby, port, chemo, and radiation done by April of that same year. But I decided to walk a different course.

So how did you make this tough decision?
My husband and I spent hours and hours reading everything we could get our hands on regarding breast cancer and pregnancy. We asked hours of questions of my docs even when I knew they were getting time pressed. After a lot of thought and research, I decided to continue with the pregnancy and work my treatment around it.

Why, when delaying your treatment put your own life at risk?
I'm not judging, but I think women with breast cancer act out of fear -- after all, cancer is a scary word -- and they base decisions on that emotion. But at the end of the day, I and I alone would have to deal with the decision I made. God forbid something did happen to the baby, I would regret that exponentially and perhaps not ever have another chance. I know my decision was and is not popular in the breast cancer community, but it's a very personal decision and it was not right for me.

So how did you balance the demands of pregnancy and cancer treatment?
The doctor recommended I get a lumpectomy the earliest it could be done. I went with the earliest and safest time -- waiting until after my first trimester -- so I could really own that one. The thinking there was that's when most of the fetal cell division is done. I was still concerned about the anesthesia, since that's not recommended when pregnant, so once I woke up, I asked the doctors to do a sonogram and check the fetal heart rate. They refused, saying the baby was fine, so I got a sonogram somewhere else. Thankfully, everything was fine. The downside was at the time of my surgery, pregnancy was causing my breasts to swell, which put a lot of pressure on my surgical sites. It was a lot more painful than I expected.

So did you get chemo next?
I decided to not get chemo. It can be given during pregnancy and is deemed "relatively" safe, but I thought, hmm, you are strongly advised against the following while pregnant: watch your salt, watch your sugar, reduce or eliminate caffeine, do not smoke, no raw fish, no kitty litter, no hot tubs ... and the list goes on and on ... but chemo "seems" safe to a fetus? Wow. I know it happens, and my own practitioners have seen healthy post-chemo babies. But I felt it was wrong for me. And since you can't have radiation while pregnant, I decided to pass on that too.

Wow! So how were you feeling in the months leading up to your birth, knowing you'd put your cancer treatment on hold and that it could be spreading?
It was certainly nerve-wracking. I kept telling my husband, "Feel my breasts!" He'd say they felt fine, that he could barely feel the scar tissue from the surgery. But I wasn't so sure.

So what was it like after all that waiting to finally give birth?
Dominik was born on July 1, 2013. We arrived at the birthing center between midnight and 1 a.m., and Dominik was born at 4:09 a.m. I had a water birth, and daddy caught him in the water. If you like irony, his astrological sign is Cancer! And our hallmark moment came when he began to root. He rooted toward the left breast -- which was my gremlin side with breast cancer -- and I successfully breastfed. It was like coming full circle. We all cried. That breast never produced quite as much milk as the other, but I was amazed it worked at all.

More from The Stir: 'I Breastfed Two Babies After Breast Cancer' -- One Mom's Story

Did you get chemo or radiation after giving birth?
For chemo and radiation to be effective, they should ideally be given within a year after the lumpectomy. But by then, I'd have a newborn: who would care for him while my husband was out working? I wasn't sure how those puzzle pieces would fit together, particularly since neither my husband nor I have any living parents or family nearby. So I decided not to get chemo or radiation at all.

Wow. So what did you do about your cancer after your baby was born?
I got a mammogram and PET scan. And thankfully they've been all clear. Which is a relief. Still, I live with the fear that my cancer will return. My husband says, "Well, next year ... " and I think, I may not have a next year. Add Dominik to the equation and that hits me much, much harder. We seldom have our own memories before the age of 5. So I wonder, Wow, will I live long enough that my son will even be able to remember me on his own, or will I just be a person he sees in a picture book with no real memory that I ever existed? Nonetheless, I know, without a shred of doubt, that I made the best decision for Dominik. I provided him the best start in life. And just a few months ago we celebrated his first birthday! We celebrated with a cake we made ourselves that said, in French, "Happy birthday, little pickle." That's our nickname for him. We never knew we'd make it through his first year. I'm grateful, and just try to take each day as it comes.

Do you have any advice for other women who may find themselves in your position?
Find the voice you never knew you had, and with it you will find strength and resilience. Own your life and be proud of the woman you are, then and now. Stick up for yourself. Doctors won't sit around waiting for you to ask a million questions if you don't open your mouth, and there is no better time to own your life than when you've got breast cancer. For me, literally within a handful of months, I went from "We're living in Paris!" to "Oh my god I've got cancer and am pregnant." It felt overwhelming. Life is just trying to do me in. But no one is promised tomorrow. And I'm still here. And I know I've done what's best for my son.

If you got pregnant with breast cancer, would you keep the baby?

 

Image via Stephanie L.

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