Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant is uncommon, but for these two women, it was one of the hardest experiences they’ve gone through.
Going through a cancer diagnosis is never easy. But pregnancy adds a whole new layer to the diagnosis.
While uncommon, it’s estimated that 1 in 1,000 pregnant people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer each year.
Jessica Purcell, who lives in Florida, can tell you that it’s one of the hardest things in the world to do. She recalls getting her cancer diagnosis 9 weeks into a pregnancy, shortly following a devastating miscarriage. “I was already worried I was going to lose this baby, too,” she says.
“All I could think was, ‘I’m pregnant and I’m dying?'” Purcell recalls.
Despite finding a lump and having had issues with her left breast off and on for 6 years, Purcell remembers not being afraid of the idea that she could have cancer. “I was only 35 at the time, and I was thinking statistically and analytically. I kept saying, ‘I’m fine. This is fine.'”
Having gone through the experience of having cancer while expecting a baby, Jessica Purcell and Deana Jean talk about how finding supportive and compassionate care made all the difference for them and their babies.
“‘This is [going to] be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do, and you’ll ever do,'” Deana Jean of Staten Island, New York, recalls her oncologist telling her when she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer while she was 5 1/2 months pregnant.
Jean’s obstetrician (OB) cared for her during her previous pregnancies and was someone she trusted and had a good rapport with. Even so, she had to insist that her OB investigate the lump she found.
“I was under 35 and had no family history. It took a while for my OB to even listen,” she says.
Once her OB finally ordered testing, Jean says things happened quickly: “I had an ultrasound on Tuesday, a biopsy on Wednesday, and was diagnosed with breast cancer on Thursday. By that Friday, I was in the oncologist’s office.”
Purcell also recalls her diagnosis being something of a whirlwind. “When I went in for my results, I was alone. My husband was away on assignment and the breast surgeon just bluntly told me I had cancer,” she says. “I refused to leave their office after that.”
During the turmoil of finding out this life changing news, both Jean and Purcell were scared of what the diagnosis meant for them and the babies they were carrying.
Purcell insisted on having testing done to find out how advanced her cancer was the same day she was diagnosed. “My husband was almost 4 hours away at the time, but he made it home before me because I spent the whole day getting scanned. I wanted — needed — a plan,” she says.
Jean recalls the doctor saying, “I have no idea what this will look like. I’ve never treated a pregnant woman with breast cancer.”
Jean says she immediately called her OB with the news. When they spoke, he was “bawling because he had been so sure I didn’t have cancer, and I did.”
She asked him what this meant for her and her pregnancy. Her OB didn’t know.
She recalls the doctor saying: “I have no idea what this will look like. I’ve never treated a pregnant woman with breast cancer.”
Likewise, Purcell recalls her OB having no answers for her. “That day, everyone I talked to recommended terminating my pregnancy,” she says. “I couldn’t even imagine doing that since I had just had a miscarriage and wanted this baby very much.”
Purcell’s oncologist also left her feeling less than empowered and not optimistic. Her oncologist told her, “You’re gonna have to make decisions and hard ones.” The lack of compassion led Purcell to seek another opinion.
Purcell eventually connected with Dr. Elyce Cardonick from Cooper University Health Care. Right away, she felt comforted and reassured by Cardonick, who listened carefully and compassionately to Purcell’s wishes and helped her formulate a plan to treat her cancer starting in her second trimester.
Jean had a similar experience. “My oncologist, Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky, was able to get me in the next day, which happened to be Good Friday. Right away, she laid out my options.”
She remembers Teplinsky telling her, “Your cancer isn’t just treatable, it’s curable. But it’s gonna be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Pregnancy on its own is hard. Cancer on its own is hard. If you do this, you’ll know that you’ve done something that a fraction of the women in the world do. You can do anything.”
Her doctor’s words proved right. “While there was a lot of confidence in the decision we made to treat the cancer aggressively, I was still very uncertain. I was going for ultrasounds and imaging every week to make sure the baby was OK,” Jean says.
“I was in excruciating pain after the surgery but I didn’t care about the pain. I only cared about the baby.”
And it wasn’t just the worry for the baby that affected her. Her body felt the toll of cancer, cancer treatments, and pregnancy, too.
“I got very sick from mid-May to the end of June,” Jean says. “I caught a cold. It spiraled. I couldn’t keep anything down. When I delivered my daughter, I was the same weight I had been before getting pregnant because I couldn’t eat.”
During this time, Jean also had to stay isolated. “It was very difficult with two other young children at home,” she says.
Purcell went through a similar situation. She also got sick with a bad cold before going into a left radical mastectomy and then chemotherapy. “I was in excruciating pain after the surgery, but I didn’t care about the pain,” she says. “I only cared about the baby.”
For Purcell, concern for her baby was the biggest challenge she faced. With every decision she made, she second-guessed her choices.
“While waiting the 9 weeks for chemo to start, I wondered what I was doing just letting the cancer eat me and the baby up,” she says. “My biggest concern was protecting the baby. But then I sat in chemo wondering if I was poisoning my baby.”
Jean also had concerns for her child, but her concerns centered more on her two boys at home. She didn’t want to consider terminating the pregnancy but was prepared to do so if it meant being around for her boys.
“We were prepared to terminate the pregnancy if needed, but it’s not what I needed,” Jean says. “Honestly, if me terminating was going to let me survive this for my boys, it was like, OK, there’s a solution there. But I wanted to carry my pregnancy and treat.”
Both women feel like they ultimately made the right decisions for themselves and their families. Jean went on to deliver a healthy daughter at 36 weeks, and Purcell had a son at 38 weeks.
Purcell summed it up perfectly: “I know I made the right decision because he’s here and thriving,” she says.
Though it isn’t common to receive a cancer diagnosis while pregnant, it can be an extra stressful and overwhelming experience.
Treating breast cancer during pregnancy can be a bit more complicated, so it’s important to have thorough and ongoing discussions with a team of healthcare professionals, including your obstetrician and oncologist.
If you have received a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant, know that support is out there. Organizations like Hope for Two are dedicated to being a resource for anyone diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy.
Your cancer care team can also point you to other resources and support networks.
Medically reviewed on November 30, 2022
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