“You have breast cancer,” the surgeon deadpanned. I glanced at my husband & then my mom, and waited for the punch-line. It never came — the doctor was deadly serious. He had just performed a biopsy (that amounted to a lumpectomy) with me wide awake and all-too-aware of the hole dug into my left arm-pit/breast area to remove the 2.5 cm tumor. The lack of anesthetic was due to my other condition: I was 20 weeks pregnant with my 6th, but only 2nd live, child (the other 4 pregnancies ended at various stages as miscarriages). I was only 28 years old — 20 years younger than my mother at her diagnosis (coincidentally around this time in October of 2005).
The surgeon who performed my biopsy/lumpectomy looked so bleak. He did not have any real options to give me. His lack of options was only repeated by the local oncologist, my ob/gyn, and my internist. The options shown to me and implied by these members of the medical profession were twofold: try to live myself by aborting my child OR risk dying from the cancer by allowing my child to live. My ob/gyn and internist knew me well enough to know that the first option wasn’t really an option at all. So we set out to find an alternative.
I was shocked and dismayed (that’s an ENORMOUS understatement) at my local doctors options, so I turned to the WWW. I searched the Susan G. Komen site*. I searched the American Cancer Society site*. I did meta-searches.
Almost all gave me the same options: abort my little girl then seek treatment or let my little girl live and possibly die myself. That was UNACCEPTABLE and ABHORENT to me.
Luckily, my mother had been to MD Anderson in Houston, TX for her breast cancer a short 3.5 years (at the time) ago. She had my doctor send a referral request down there. Less than 10 days after my diagnosis (6 days after ultrasound confirmed that my unborn child was a girl), I was in Houston meeting Dr. L, a breast oncologist at MD Anderson. I was a trifecta for her — her specialities are 1) Young women with breast cancer (check), 2) BRCA1 mutations (check), and (most importantly) 3) Breast cancer treatment of pregnant women (check). I had tests performed during that week in TX that would have taken MONTHS to schedule locally.
I had more expert opinions than I knew were possible! Most of all I had HOPE!!
As I returned home, I was still frightened, but at least I had a plan. What a plan it was! It began with chemotherapy while maintaining my pregnancy. It’s climax was the delivery of Rachel Eleonore on Thanksgiving Day (her daddy’s birthday as well as her exact due date). It persisted with further chemotherapy. It ended with several surgeries that included a modified radical mastectomy, immediate expander implant reconstruction, implant exchange surgery, and later this month DIEP reconstruction surgery. I have made it thus far carried by the prayers of family, friends, and even complete strangers around the world. This has been my chance to shoulder my cross and lead the way through a trial. To date, both my children have been in the local Walk for Life every year of their lives, including in the womb. I was a spectacle in September of 2009 when I walked bald & very pregnant (I was due in November) to the half-way point. In a way, I thank God for the opportunity, although at other times I ask God why He thinks I’m strong enough. Yet, through His grace, I am here and I stand strong with my wonderful daughter (and her older brother and their father) to be a vivid example of respecting life.
There have been many bumps in the road, but I have NEVER once regretted the decision to keep my precious baby girl who will be turning 2 this November. Her survival was not a surprise, but a blessing.
Sadly, I am no longer capable of bringing more children into this world. As a precautionary action, I had my ovaries and uterus removed since BRCA1 increases the risk of ovarian cancer by approximately 40-60%. In my mind, given my young age at breast cancer diagnosis, a young age of ovarian cancer was probably in my future. In addition, my maternal grandmother suffered alternating bouts with breast, then ovarian, then breast again for the last 5 years of her life. However, my inability to carry children in my womb has strengthened my resolve to help other women know that they can. I am a vocal advocate of the pro-life movement. I am also very vocal about the details of my story. Statistics tell us that 1 in 3000 – 3500 women diagnosed with breast cancer will be pregnant. To me, that means that the more I spread the word that women and their baby can live through the cancer, the more lives will be saved. I have recently personally heard about a woman who had brain tumors that received chemo and radiation while pregnant, again with no effect on the child.
To me, the moral of my story is that being pro-life is not a death sentence for a pregnant woman or her unborn child with a horrible disease like cancer. It is entirely possible to overcome numerous diseases and have a happy healthy baby in the process. Many cite “life of the mother” as a reason for abortion. Well, I’m here to say that many of the times “life of the mother” is cited, abortion is not in the woman’s best interest. As a matter of fact research has shown that pregnant women with cancer who keep their baby have a BETTER survival rate than their counterparts who abort. That is scientific fact that should be proclaimed from the housetops. Regardless, abortion is definitely not EVER in the baby’s best interest!
To read more of my story, you can read my blog Erika’s Miracle Journey.
You can also read about the development of the Lady Ribbon, a pro-life, pro-woman, breast cancer awareness symbol.
Erika V. is a thirty-something mother of two (with four saints in heaven). With a degree in molecular biology, she works for her state’s police crime lab; although her dream is to stay home with her children and homeschool them. Her newly converted husband is a sometime auto mechanic and primarily a stay-at-home dad. Passionate about pro-life issues and science, she is a survivor of breast cancer while pregnant. At 20 weeks pregnant with her daughter (pregnancy number six), she was diagnosed with BRCA1 stage II breast cancer. When local doctors we stumped with the diagnosis, she traveled to MDAnderson where chemotherapy on pregnant women has been done for over twenty years. After delivering her baby girl and undergoing more chemotherapy, Erika has had a whirlwind of surgeries to combat the cancer as well as the complications of cancer treatments. Three years and eight surgeries later, she continues to be passionate about pro-life endeavors, even winning the local Right to Life group’s Life Award and serving on their working board of directors. She authors two blogs, one a mommy blog Biology Brain-Simon Says and one a breast cancer while pregnant blog Erika’s Miracle Journey. Blog posts are often filled with pro-life references, including medical journal articles supporting the pro-life position. While there isn’t often time, she also enjoys horses, reading, gardening, and KY bourbon.