Saturday, July 19, 2014

Another Life-Affirming Cancer While Pregnant Story

I am always happy when there is another article discussing cancer while pregnant and that abortion is not an option. When I was diagnosed in 2009, I'd never heard of any one having cancer while pregnant. If I'd strained my brain, I probably could have speculated that it happened, but it was not something on the my radar. I think that's true of most people -- cancer happens and women get pregnant, but those are separate entities. So any awareness of cancer while pregnant is good. Awareness of treatment choices for cancer while pregnant being better than abortion is excellent

Awareness does not always lead to the broadcast of correct medical information about all the viable options - surgery, chemotherapy, or surveillance until the natural end of pregnancy. Many articles give hero status to women who refuse any treatment (including abortion) during pregnancy. It is obviously an excellent decision to continue the pregnancy despite a cancer diagnosis. However, the awareness of chemotherapy's safety while pregnant suffers when pregnant women are quoted as refusing chemotherapy due to its 'risk' to the baby. Obviously, these women are brave for continuing the pregnancy and they are also brave for making the decision to wait until after their baby's birth to begin treatment. I have no issue with women who choose this option. It is equally brave and heroic to continue the pregnancy while choosing to receive chemotherapy. My issue stems from the implied or blatant dismissal of this latter choice. 

Statements like, 

"chemo is safe during pregnancy but “any time you place chemicals into your body you are placing your child at risk and even possible miscarriage.”" (From this article: )
                         are misleading at best and derogatory at worst. Many people will completely miss the admission that chemotherapy is safe during pregnancy due to the wording of the rest of the statement. These people will only remember that this woman was a brave hero for refusing to 'risk' her baby's life to save her own. They'll take her opinion* that chemicals (chemotherapy) increase the risk of miscarriage and other harm to heart. This particular woman had surgery while pregnant -- most likely with chemicals (sedatives and anesthetics) given during the operation -- apparently without problem or risk of her child. Little or no thought will be given to the actual medical facts of chemotherapy while pregnant. That lack of thought can be dangerous and discouraging for women who choose chemotherapy while pregnant based on their doctor's advice and their situation. 

Every pregnancy is most vulnerable during the first trimester. Women have a higher risk of miscarriage in the first trimester. Once the second trimester begins, the miscarriage risk decreases significantly and continues to decrease as pregnancy progresses. The risk of birth defects is also most significant in the first trimester. Most of the vital forming of the baby happens in the first trimester - differentiating a single cell into various organs and putting all body parts in the right anatomical place. Various chemicals, whether in abundance (alcohol) or not enough (folic acid), can create life-long errors in formation during this trimester.  For that reason, to my knowledge, chemotherapy will only be initiated after the vulnerable first trimester of pregnancy. 

I was pretty high risk for miscarriage without addition problems (I miscarried 4 times prior to my last pregnancy), but when I was given the option of chemotherapy while pregnant, I was reassured that doing so would not increase my risk. Both my Oncologist and the Maternal-Fetal OB were asked a bazillion questions about that aspect intentionally. An increased likelihood of early contractions were one of the biggest 'risks' associated with chemotherapy during pregnancy according to the Maternal-Fetal OB that I saw in Houston, TX. She actually didn't bring it up until I told her I'd been noticing contractions ever since my diagnosis. However, she again assured me that a) any time you stress a pregnant woman she's likely to have contractions and b) those contractions are rarely 'productive' and therefore not a true risk to the baby. All other risks during chemotherapy pregnancy were similar whether chemotherapy was used or not. My increased risk of miscarriage remained whether I had chemotherapy or not.

I ran into people online and in real life that told me I made a selfish decision to have chemo while I was pregnant based on this thought. It made my reality even more difficult as people questioned my respect and love for my unborn baby. In fact, at one point I had (a few) someone(s) baldly tell me that my decision was *not* pro-life or even Catholic based on their perceived risk(s) posed to the unborn child during chemotherapy. To them, it did not matter that I had an oncologist who specialized in pregnant patients receiving chemotherapy. Her reassurances and research in this area was dismissed based on their ignorance and perception of what was 'healthy' for me and my unborn child. My referral to a Maternal-Fetal OB specialist and her advice was also dismissed. Constant monitoring, measuring, and visualizations ordered by this specialist amounted to nothing in the eyes of my detractors. Life-long respect for life, adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and my own bio-medical education meant nothing to these detractors as they were obviously more pro-life and Catholic than I. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that while I knew I'd made the best decision for me and my baby, these words of detraction resulted in increased fear, stress, doubts, depression, and anxiety. These derogatory words were probably more detrimental to my pregnancy than the actual chemotherapy was. 

I'm all for awareness of cancer while pregnant and chemotherapy while pregnant. While I hate that women face such struggles, I'm always happy to read an article giving the true life-affirming options of continuing the pregnancy with or without chemotherapy. Such articles will hopefully educate people about this devastating situation and give these women hope for their baby's and their own lives. However, I am saddened when opting for chemotherapy while pregnant is indirectly implied to be as bad a choice as abortion. Nothing could be further from the truth. While everyone is entitled to their opinions, it is crucial that medical realities aren't supplanted by emotional opinions. A devastating cancer diagnosis while pregnant is difficult and stressful enough without adding further confusion to the matter based on erroneous opinions. Let everyone know that a diagnosis of cancer while pregnant isn't a death sentence to either the woman or her child - both can live through chemotherapy, surgery, or the natural end of pregnancy. 

Moral of the story: Abortion is *never* in the baby's best interest. Cancer during pregnancy can be survived by both. Viable options include chemotherapy, surgery, and surveillance until the natural end of pregnancy. Mother and baby can survive and thrive despite a cancer diagnosis regardless of which of these treatment options is chosen. 

*I am in no means trying to denigrate this woman for her opinion or choice. Nor am I trying to lay guilt on her doorstep for her choice or opinion. She is a brave and heroic woman for resisting the oft-repeated option of aborting her child. I give her great kudos for that decision alone. I also give her and her family my prayers as they continue through this struggle. She has as my full sympathy and support during this time of difficulty. May God bless her and keep her healthy. 

Medical and Media References to Chemotherapy During Pregnancy - I'm more than likely included in the number of pregnant women treated with chemotherapy in this journal article by my Breast Oncologist, JK Litton. This one also shows that there is improved outcomes in pregnant patients verses non-pregnant patients. - My Breast Oncologist at MD Anderson is in this one too. - Another article by my Breast Oncologist. The second half of the 'debate' on this page, to me, displays someone desperate to find an excuse to worry. Note the large number of references used by my Breast Oncologist verses the solitary reference used by her 'opponent'. - Another article by my Breast Oncologist in full text presentation. - Another interview with my Breast Oncologist. This is a terrible transcript with numerous typos, but the gist is the same as the others. - The doctor interviewed here said that she hopes no more "unnecessary terminations" are carried out on pregnant women with cancer. - Another one with my Breast Oncologist in it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Miracle Journey: Bald, Pregnant, and Living

Click this photo, my hand-drawn logo, to see more of my story.
“You have breast cancer,” the surgeon deadpanned. I glanced at my husband and 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 (October of 2005) -- on that July 7th of 2009.

The shock

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.

The port in a storm

Luckily, my mother had been to MD Anderson in Houston, TX for her breast cancer in 2005. 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!!

The plan

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. My first dose found me in the hospital for 3 days just as a precaution. Three times following that I carried a small pump with chemotherapy in it with me for 3 days. Chemotherapy was discontinued after 4 rounds to let me build up for the climax - the delivery of Rachel Eleonore on Thanksgiving Day (her daddy’s birthday as well as her exact due date). A little more than a month later, I began 4 rounds of a different combination of chemotherapy drugs. Rachel was not even 3 months old before I had the first of my surgeries - a modified radical mastectomy with immediate expander implant reconstruction. At that point, I was cancer-free and Rachel was alive and growing quickly.

The deepest cuts

A little more than a year following my diagnosis I had a bilateral salping-oophorectomy (tubes and ovaries removed). However, that surgery threw a huge monkey wrench into my life due to excessive blood loss during surgery and an abscess removed a month after surgery along with my uterus. My implant exchange surgery happened almost exactly a year after my mastectomy. Yet, due to constant pain I had to have yet another reconstructive surgery this time using my belly fat to form breasts, called DIEP reconstruction surgery. After a long struggle, even this last reconstruction was unable to eliminate the almost constant pain. The cause of my pain was diagnosed to be Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Physical therapy and body awareness usually alleviates the problem, but not for me. I went under the knife again to have my left first rib removed to give my nerves and blood vessels more room to move. All told, I had 8 surgeries including my biopsy for diagnosis and installation of my port for chemotherapy.

The survival

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 and 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 5 in November of 2014. Her survival was not a surprise, but a blessing.

The statistics

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.

The moral

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!

Pro-Life Lady Ribbon
You can also read about the development of the Lady Ribbon, a pro-life, pro-woman, breast cancer awareness symbol.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

41st Annual March for Life 2014

The sorrowful news about abortion, beyond the death of an unborn child, is the harm it causes women. As many as 45% of some Suicide Hotlines are women in deep grief for the disposal of their babies. Their grief, guilt, and regret can lead to 'less' severe consequences like depression, low self esteem, PTSD, anxiety, and perhaps worst of all, distance from God. God can and will forgive these women of their sin, if they only ask. However, society lies to them - saying there is no need for forgiveness or any negative feelings regarding their abortion. 

Abortion advocates do a much deeper damage to women than physically harming them during the actual abortion. The lies promoted by abortion advocates belittle the negative feelings many women have later about their abortions. Without proper support or recognition, these walking wounded women become bitter, disillusioned, and forced to support abortion or else feel they are condemning themselves. Many times these women publicly say they feel no negative feelings about their abortion. Yet, if they were truly to examine their conscience, mind, heart, and soul - the deep wound of their abortion colors their whole lives. 

As pro-lifers we must not only express our concern for the millions of babies destroyed, but also express concern for the mothers (and families) that 'chose' that option. Even if the woman denies any negative feelings, it is quite likely that she just can't or won't acknowledge it. Abortion is murder and baldly stating that truth can be unimaginably painful for post-abortive women (whether they admit it or not). The abortionists are the ones that commit this murder, while the mother is complicit and a co-conspirator. However, once she asks God for His forgiveness (if Catholic in the Sacrament of Reconciliation), in His infinite mercy, He forgives her. 

It is our job as pro-lifers to pray for these women's hearts to change, encourage women to seek this forgiveness, and offer support for their continued healing. On this evening of the 41st March for Life, let us join in prayer for those who marched, those who prayed, those who participated in huge Twitter-fest, and all of those who's hearts and minds were on the subject. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Guard yourself Against Gardasil

I'm on the fence about vaccines. However, the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) is definitely one vaccine I'm 100% against. Reading the things the  developer of the vaccine has published cements my position. I did my own research & found that Gardasil only 'protects' against 4 strains of HPV that may (research hasn't proven cause and effect yet) cause cervical cancer. Additionally, routine PAP smears have proven more effective at catching and preventing fatalities than the vaccine could. Neither of my children will be receiving this vaccine!

Diane Harper - one of the developers of Gardasil - on its effectiveness and what it means for our children:

Diane Harper - one of the developers of Gardasil:

Dr John LaPook - medical corespondent for CBS News on Gardasil:

There are many more articles dealing in the science behind the failures or over statements of Gardasil. Foremost, even above these I listed is that the strains of HPV Gardasil purportedly protects against are STDs. Morality can and will protect my children from STDs not some 'miracle' vaccine. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

St. Peregrine Novena for Cancer Patients: Day 1-9

Dear holy servant of God, St. Peregrine, we pray today for healing.

Intercede for us! God healed you of cancer and others were healed by your prayers. Please pray for...

*Holly & Jennifer (&/or your own intentions)

These intentions bring us to our knees seeking your intercession for healing.

We are humbled by our physical limitations and ailments. We are so weak and so powerless. We are completely dependent upon God. And so, we ask that you pray for us...

Pray for us, that we will not let sickness bring us to despair.

We know, St. Peregrine, that you are a powerful intercessor because your life was completely given to God. We know that in as much as you pray for our healing, you are praying even more for our salvation.

A life of holiness like yours is more important than a life free of suffering and disease. Pray for our healing, but pray even more that we might come as close to Our Lord as you are.

All Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.


*The two ladies' names I mention are friends of mine currently struggling with their own cancer journeys. There are several other people I know afflicted with cancer, and I'm sure you know some of your own. For those I don't list, please don't take it as a sign of me ignoring your need for prayers. I have a faulty memory and although I may not list your name specifically, I do remember you in my prayers because I know God has your name written on His hand.

The prayer is the same for each day of the 9 days. So please say the prayer daily.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Miraculous Healing or Lifelong Witness...

This is an awesome story.

In a way, I wish my cancer had been so quickly and easily cured. In other ways, I know that my journey served more of a purpose than just saving me or even Rachel. I firmly believe that in sharing my story, other women and their unborn babies will share a life together that would have been impossible otherwise. This is why I share my story so freely and often. I don't want accolades - I don't deserve them because I just did what I had to morally, physically, and psychologically. I just want to save even just one woman the horror of having to choose between her own life or her unborn baby's. If even one child lives, all the grief I've experienced since July 7, 2009 has been a very small price to pay. 

God bless all women in this situation, their unborn children, and their families. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

When Prophylactic Doesn' Mean Immoral

Recently, Angelina Joli made a big splash in entertainment news as she wrote about her prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. She and I share family history of relatively young women being stricken with this beast to the point of death. Luckily for her, she was able to act pre-emptively instead of finding herself in an oncologist's office hearing the dreaded "You have cancer". In addition to sharing a family history, we also share a mutation in our BRCA1 genes that makes us at least 85% more likely to develop the dreaded disease. Our mothers were also both diagnosed as relatively young women (my mother was 48, Joli's mother was in her 50s I think). My mother survived, while Joli's succumbed to the disease. Other breast cancer survivors in the entertainment industry have come out with their stories as well, but Joli's struck closer to home for me for some reason. Perhaps it's the BRCA1 connection or perhaps it's that I now have more time to think about what's going on in the world. For whatever reason, I am exquisitely aware of the controversy her decision has sparked. In my expanded world of social networking sites, I have many devout Catholics and Christians that I respect and have supported me throughout my trial. However, instances like Joli's announcement sometime reveal more about how people view the decisions I made as a result of my diagnosis. 

You see, while I was diagnosed with an active cancer, it was self contained and only on my left side. In other words, the excisional biopsy for diagnosis could have been the final surgery for my cancer. After all, the tumor was removed in its entirety and chances were good it had not spread to my lymph nodes. Yet, due to my genetic predisposition and more than a little bit of fear, I not only chose to remove my entire left breast, but also my healthy right breast and both ovaries (since BRCA1 increases the risk of ovarian cancer by 40%). In the medical community of MD Anderson, there was no real discussion of only having a lumpectomy. It was mentioned as a possibility, but for very different circumstances. My thoughts were to similar to the tongue-in-cheek slogan, "Yes, they're fake, but my real breasts were trying to kill me." During the acute phase of my treatment I was very active in a community of other women genetically predisposed to breast cancer. Some of them, like Joli, chose to remove their breasts before they could become diseased. I must admit that the stories of women as young as 20 having this major surgery shocked me, but not as much as the women who chose a simple lumpectomy or only alternative treatment for their disease. I couldn't imagine having this sometimes fatal disease, but not throwing every treatment possible at it. The risk of reoccurrence for BRCA1 breast (and most of the other genetic forms of breast cancer) are significant. Yet, as a contemplative and respectful person, I recognized that this decision was very personal and must not be taken for granted.

In light of Joli's announcement, some expressed their belief that her decision was too drastic. It was speculated that changes in diet, full-term pregnancies at a relatively early age, breast feeding, and other lifestyle choices were sufficient. One even commented that Joli's decision displayed a lack of faith in God and too much in science. Again, while my situation differed from Joli's, I couldn't help but apply these sentiments to my decision. My full-term pregnancies were in my mid-twenties, but were both preceded with two miscarriages each. As my readers know, my sixth pregnancy preceded my diagnosis by only 20 weeks. Additionally, I have never been a huge fan of red meat, but enjoy broccoli and other foods known to be good for decreasing risk. Simon, my oldest, nursed for a year, only stopping when he chose, on his first birthday. None of those choices had prevented my cancer at 28, so I've since found that while these choices won't hurt, they obviously don't guarantee the absence of breast cancer. 

Prior to this major decision (my oophorectomy), I spent a lot of time in prayer and conversation with trusted Catholic priests, doctors, and theologians in addition to scouring scientific journals. Respected and learned doctors recommended oophorectomy between the ages of 35 and 40, several years away for me, but conceded that in my situation (my young age and pregnancy at diagnosis and the concerning factor of my miscarriages & gynecological issues), the choice was with merit. Deciding to sacrifice my ovaries also obviously sacrificed my fertility, even though I had wanted at least one more child. Conversely, removing my ovaries would also eliminate my suffering with severe endometriosis and poly-cystic ovarian syndrome. Because of these secondary issues, I consulted the Pope Paul VI Institute's Dr. Hilgers to determine if he'd found, through NaPRo Technology and his Creighton Model research, any bio-markers to detect ovarian cancer through charting. After all these prayers, conversations, and research, I made my choice to have the oophorectomy. 

While I am comfortable and at peace with my decisions, a small part of me is wounded when those I respect indicate my choices were extreme or a matter of placing more trust in science than in God. Sometimes I also suffer from baby envy as my friends excitedly tell the world of their pregnancies. Other times, when it is assumed there are better alternatives--especially from people who've not faced my situation--that I didn't investigate, I feel as if I've been slapped. Most people are ignorant of not only the horror of realizing you have cancer, facing chemotherapy and surgery, and the constant anxiety of a recurrence. Those that are compassionate, after hearing my reasoning and the statistic behind my choice, concede that in my position they likely would have made the same choice. Many are immediately swayed by my explanation that I chose to reduce my risk through removal of 'healthy' organs, not out of fear of death, but to live for my children. These are the people who do not hurt me by their opinions because they are mature and compassionate enough to realize how much thought, research, and prayer went into the decision. Yet, there are some who steadfastly refuse to be compassionate and insist, even in my situation, they would not make this "sinful" decision. Unchristian is not often a term I apply to others, but it seems applicable. I think these people are confusing prophylactic surgery with prophylactics (condoms and diaphragms). The former, and only the former, are considered moral. As a matter of fact, I'm hard pressed to find any Catholic moral theologian who disagrees with prophylactic surgeries to prevent cancer--even if fertility is sacrificed. With this in mind, I pray for those misguided souls, not simply because they hurt my feelings, but for God to preserve them from being faced with the same decision I was. Perhaps one day, God will grant science a less invasive means to prevent cancer, but until then, I trust Him to guide those who ask into the right approach for them.

Here are some resources to learn more about BRCA1 and BRCA2 Breast and Ovarian Cancers.
National Cancer Institute Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer facts -
Aetna Health Insurance Policy information -
MedScape information (my doctor, Jennifer Litton) is quoted -
Journal of Clinical Oncology article on Risk Reduction in BRCA1/2 -

My Chemo-Jane hair-style

My Chemo-Jane hair-style
I just had to have my mom buzz my hair because it was falling out so badly.

Pre-op wearing my hand-crocheted cap with my prayer shawl.

Pre-op wearing my hand-crocheted cap with my prayer shawl.
My loving husband is watching me distract myself with a game on his iPhone.

2 days after my BMX w/ 100ccs in the TEs

2 days after my BMX w/ 100ccs in the TEs
I even have a fashionable belt to hold up my drains.

3 weeks post-op w/ 400ccs in each TE

3 weeks post-op w/ 400ccs in each TE
The smile is fake because the TEs were irritating!