Personal stories

Cancer diagnosis during pregnancy

Posted by Guest Author on 08 March 2021

My story of a cancer diagnosis and treatment during pregnancy.

I found my lump a week or two before I knew I was pregnant. It was a hard pea size lump just under my skin. I told myself I would keep an eye on it for a week or two and then go to the doctor.

However, much to my surprise a week or two later I found out I was pregnant and I put the lump down to that. I went to the doctor to have my pregnancy confirmed and mentioned the lump briefly while we were chatting but didn’t ask the doctor to look at it.

A few weeks passed and as the pregnancy progressed my breasts started to show the signs of pregnancy. However the breast which had the lump was noticeably more sensitive and while my “normal” breast had started to show other changes besides size, the breast with the lump did not. I went back to my doctor and she referred me to the breast clinic at my local hospital.

At my hospital appointment I had an examination, an ultrasound and a biopsy was also taken. When the results came back it was confirmed it was breast cancer. I would require a mastectomy due to the location of the tumour and the fact that I could not receive radiotherapy during pregnancy.

As devastating as this news was, I felt so relieved to hear that they could safely treat myself and the baby. I was almost 11 weeks at this stage and although I had already had an early scan at 9 weeks it was still an uncertain time in the pregnancy.

I had my mastectomy at 13 weeks but due to COVID restrictions I couldn’t have any visitors and my partner could not come to the waiting area of the hospital with me so I was alone that morning and for the 3 nights I spent in hospital. I was still having some of the last of my morning sickness but thankfully the day of the operation I wasn’t as sick as normal so I didn’t find the fasting as bad as I’d expected.

All the nurses and doctors were so kind to me in the hospital. The operation went well, I didn’t really have any pain afterwards and I made a good recovery with the exercises the physio gave me.

A number of weeks later I went to meet my oncologist for the first time, where he laid out the plan for chemo. Thankfully, the type of chemo normally indicated for my type of breast cancer is safe to use during pregnancy after the first trimester.

I started chemo at 19 weeks. I was much more nervous for the baby than before my mastectomy even though I had been told the chemo was safe, especially as I had to attend chemo alone, again due to COVID restrictions. Thankfully he was just starting to move by then which helped to put my mind at ease. Feeling the baby move, especially in the few days after each treatment gave me so much comfort and I felt so connected to him at those times. We also found out we were having a boy a few weeks after I started chemo which made it much more real for us.

I was also very fortunate that the maternity and general hospital are co located where I live and my oncologist and obstetrician had worked together several times before. I had regular scans every 2 to 3 weeks following my diagnosis and everything was normal so this also really helped to put my mind at ease, particularly in the early stages.

I found chemo tough like everyone else but I managed to finish it. I rested a lot and did my best to eat healthily, which was easy enough at first. I had a lot of nausea early in my pregnancy and hadn’t been able to eat much up to about 16 weeks so I was really motivated to eat well for as much of the treatment as I could. As it turned out the nausea I had from morning sickness was much worse than anything I got from chemo but as my taste buds changed due to the chemo I found it hard to find foods I could stomach.

I got very tired as the treatment went on and had anaemia from both the chemo and pregnancy. Towards the end I used to have to lie down for a few minutes after climbing the stairs! I had a blood transfusion for the anaemia towards the end of my treatment which helped a bit. I also had a lot of congestion in my chest from the baby pushing on the bottom of my lungs so I had to sleep propped up toward the end of treatment.

My baby boy was born shortly after I finished chemo. He was perfectly healthy but as he was a bit early he had to spend some time in the neonatal unit. He was so well looked after in there but as there were visitor restrictions my partner and I could not be there at the same time so we couldn’t be together as a family in his early days. This was tough but the staff there were such a good support to us, especially to me, constantly advising me to get some rest and not put myself under pressure to be there all the time, and when our baby came home he was feeding really well and in an excellent routine which also really helped my recovery.

It has been hard recovering from cancer treatment as a new mum with a small baby, especially as my partner’s family live abroad and my own family live outside our own COVID lockdown area so we don’t see them much. I had to start hormone therapy recently and at the beginning the fatigue and other side effects made getting up at night especially tough but my partner has been so supportive and has been doing most of the night feeds and it has gotten easier.

Our baby is 4 months old now. He is healthy and has started to smile and make noises and has even laughed once or twice. We are just over the moon with him and we feel so fortunate that we are all doing well.

When I look back at my pregnancy there were some really heartbreaking times around my diagnosis and during chemotherapy. There were times when I was both emotionally and physically drained and was full of fear and anxiety about the future but my baby really gave me the strength to keep going and stay positive in a way I’m not sure I could have if I hadn’t been pregnant. I had great support from my family and friends my local cancer support centre, and from a charity called Mummy’s Star who support women who are diagnosed with cancer during or shortly after pregnancy.

Both of these resources really helped me to work through my feelings and my fears and to realise that I could get through the treatment. When I was resting and could feel my baby moving it really kept me going, and I actually have some very happy memories when I tried to just be present and enjoy the pregnancy in these moments.

March 2021

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Claire diagnosed in 2016
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