Breast cancer survivor: Why I chose MD Anderson for treatment during my second pregnancy
I will never forget the day I found out I had breast cancer. It was the first week of October 2022 — the very beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I’d just learned that I was roughly six weeks pregnant with my second child in September. So, I only got to savor that news and be really excited about it for a couple of weeks.
Fortunately, I went to MD Anderson for my breast cancer treatment. Thanks to them, my second son was born perfectly healthy on May 23, 2023. And, I am on my way to being cancer-free.
Instilling confidence from the very beginning
At the time of my diagnosis last year, my husband and I were already in the process of moving from Phoenix to San Antonio to be closer to our families. But I had lived in Houston for five years before that, and I was born and raised in Texas. So, I knew all about MD Anderson’s reputation as the nation’s No. 1 cancer hospital.
People come from all over the globe to be treated at MD Anderson. Now, I know why.
From the minute my doctor in Arizona referred me, I have received world-class service. I could feel the difference during my very first phone call. The intake specialist taking my call was extremely encouraging — and he was just processing my insurance information!
My nurse navigator, Sarah Roder, was also incredibly supportive. She gave me some great resources during our very first meeting that I found extremely helpful. So, I felt confident I would be in good hands.
Expertise in treating cancer during pregnancy reassured me
At MD Anderson, I met first with Dr. Oluchi Oke, who specializes in treating pregnant breast cancer patients. She confirmed the diagnosis of stage I invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast. Then, she recommended surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy, depending on what type of surgery I chose.
I was a little nervous. But Dr. Oke assured me that pregnant women undergo surgeries all the time, for things like gall bladder removals. And, neither a lumpectomy nor a mastectomy should pose any risk to the baby.
She also said that pregnant women had been receiving chemotherapy successfully since the 1980s and that while it was possible a small amount of those drugs could be passed through the placenta, there was no conclusive evidence showing that this was harmful.
I’d heard that MD Anderson treats more pregnant women with breast cancer than anyone else. So, I felt like I was getting really good information and could trust Dr. Oke’s recommendations.
My breast cancer treatment, during and after pregnancy
I had my breast cancer surgery at MD Anderson in December 2022, when I was four months pregnant. Dr. Elizabeth FitzSullivan performed the lumpectomy, and Dr. Bryce Olenczak handled the reconstruction right afterward. It went very smoothly with no complications.
I started chemotherapy the following month and had four rounds of it before taking a break to give birth. I resumed chemotherapy a few weeks later and should be finished with it by the end of August. Then, I’ll start radiation therapy.
Doctor’s flexibility made both my life and my labor less stressful
Testing revealed that my breast cancer was estrogen receptor positive, so Dr. Oke recommended my labor be induced at 36 weeks gestation. This would both lower the amount of estrogen circulating in my body (and, possibly, feeding microscopic cancer cells) and allow me to get back on chemotherapy as quickly as possible.
But I didn’t want a long labor or any additional stressors. It was important to me to let the baby come when he was ready to come. My local obstetricians said we could wait and see how things went, as long as my health and the baby’s health remained stable. I really appreciated Dr. Oke’s willingness to work with us on that.
Happily, I went into labor with my second son just one day before my scheduled induction at 40 weeks. The delivery was so quick, I barely made it to the hospital in time. I was ecstatic.
Perfect pregnancy despite a breast cancer diagnosis
Finding out that I had cancer so soon after learning I was pregnant was extremely scary. It came as such a complete shock, I almost didn’t believe it. Cancer doesn’t run in my family. I was only 31 at the time. And, I knew a lot of women who’d had breast lumps that turned out to be nothing.
But I wept when I realized it was true. I was worried I’d be too frail to pick up or play with my 10-month-old firstborn. This was not how I envisioned my life going as a young wife and mother.
Fortunately, I didn’t experience any extreme side effects during treatment. I did have hair loss, skin and nail changes, fatigue, nausea and food aversion. But those last two issues are pretty common in pregnant women anyway, especially during the first trimester. And, as the mother of a small child who still wasn’t sleeping through the night, I was used to being tired. I learned to roll with it.
Happily, the nausea went away after I stopped chemotherapy during the third trimester, so my baby had a huge growth spurt in those last five weeks. He ended up weighing exactly 8 pounds and being perfectly healthy.
I have leaned heavily on my faith in God and the many friends, colleagues and family members who shared this burden with me. I learned not to worry and to take each day as it comes. And, as odd as it may sound, I'm thankful to have gone on this journey. I feel blessed and couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for me and my baby.