“I’m a word person, but for this I have no words.” That’s how I started an email to a good friend the day I found out she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. It took me a full hour to process the news, and I spent the next several in tears. That was four weeks ago. Three weeks ago she told me what caused the cancer: her second pregnancy.
Today I’ve found my words again. Chalk it up to going through the steps of grieving–grieving over her diagnosis–but ever since she told me that because she created life, she’s now fighting for her own, I have been angry. Not angry at my friend, who wishes to remain nameless–“The message is the most important aspect,” she said–but angry that after having two kids myself and knowing a very fair share of other moms and having an OB/GYN in my family, I had never heard of pregnancy-induced breast cancer.
My friend never heard about it either, so when she noticed a lump in her left breast, she figured it was a clogged milk duct. She had no genetic history of breast cancer and felt fine. In September, when her second child was 10 months old, she sought treatment for a cough and pain in her chest, back, and shoulders. The doctor diagnosed pneumonia. At a recheck a week later, he found the antibiotics had done nothing. He sent her for further testing, and on September 27th, she was diagnosed with stage four (metastatic) breast cancer.
About 1 in 3,000 pregnant women will get it, according to the American Cancer Society, and it’s the most common type of cancer found during pregnancy or within the year after delivery.
My friend wasted no time going to a Mayo Clinic location where a relative is chief resident for additional evaluation and a treatment plan. There, her medical team found that the cancer had spread to her neck, spine, hips, chest, and pelvic area. Within days, the doctors removed her ovaries to halt the production of estrogen, which they believed was fueling the cancer’s exponential growth. She also underwent radiation treatment on her eyes to shrink tumors that could damage her vision.
The prognosis, she said, is not good. Neither are the odds. The focus is on quality and duration of life. “I’ll have cancer for the rest of my life, and my life can be measured in years, not decades,” she told me on the phone.
Not getting the lump checked when she first felt it was a huge mistake, she added. But I can’t blame her. As a healthy 35-year-old fresh out of full medical work-ups and who had breastfed before, she thought she knew the cause and planned to monitor the lump to see if it went away when she weaned the baby.
If anyone can beat the odds, it’s this chick. As she and her husband kept friends and family up-to-date on everything, I was struck by their undiminished sense of humor and caring for others. I was also sent into a giggling fit thinking that of all the diseases my friend could get, she got the one represented by pink–probably her least favorite color. Picturing her rolling her eyes at a sea of pink T-shirts and paraphernalia somehow helped.
In the past month, I went from stunned silence to having an urgent need to do something for her. Besides sending her a gift to help pass the time in the hospital and getting a pink hair extension from a salon that donated the proceeds to breast cancer research, I realized this is what I can do. I can tell her story and maybe it will help someone else.
Expectant moms get poked, prodded, and tested in ways we never imagined pre-pregnancy, so why aren’t doctors taking an extra 30 seconds to do breast exams, too? Or at least to tell women that this is a possibility. Both times I was pregnant, I made at least 16 prenatal visits to the obstetrician and two postpartum. Not once did the possibility of breast cancer arise.
Tell your friends, tell your daughters, and most of all tell your obstetricians that pregnancy-induced cancer is a possibility, no matter how remote. And take matters into your own hands–literally. Feel around for anything abnormal or to get a sense of what is normal so that you’ll notice a change quickly.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I became more aware than I ever wanted to be. I hope my friend’s story enlightens and inspires you, too.