Elizabeth Varghese [ name changed] has been married for three years. As she says, life was at its best without too many twists and turns. And then she became pregnant. A double dose of happiness surrounded her family when the doctor said, Elizebeth was expecting twins.
As the couple started their preparations to welcome the babies, Elizabeth also happened to feel a lump in her right breast. The days passed by, the lump grew bigger in size. During the third month of pregnancy they decided to do an ultra scan with the doctor’s consent. When the results came, they were informed, it was only a fibroadenoma and suggested further testing.
Happy days passed by. Then, on a Christmas morning Elizabeth experienced severe vaginal bleeding and was hospitalised for a week after which she was advised complete bed rest. During those days of hospital admission, Elizabeth also underwent an FNAC [ fine-needle aspiration cytology] of the lump. The result came out as a benign lesion and the increase in size was attributed to pregnancy related hormonal changes.
While the trouble-free days came back, the lump kept growing in size. By then Elizabeth had decided to take a second opinion to reassure her safety as well as her babies’. The results were shocking. She was detected with a grade 3 malignancy. Such catastrophe at the age of 26 shattered Elizabeth’s beautiful dream of delivering her twins.
Many questions were raised, won’t the Cancer spread to the babies? Will Elizabeth be able to breastfeed her twins? How risky is chemotherapy and surgery? What is the best way to go about this pregnancy?
This is where we need to rethink.
Research throws light on the misconception of a pregnant mother suffering from Cancer, passing on her Cancerous cells to the child. It is not true. A mother can rarely pass on her disease to the baby. The affected cells will not get in the way of breast-feeding too.
Feeding reminds us of one of the most common cancer complicating a beautiful pregnancy, the Breast Cancer. Many pregnant women take time to find out as they attribute the bodily changes to hormonal variations during this period of life. It is only when they go to a doctor for regular check up, the gynecologist fears a malignancy and calls for further investigations. Once the doctor identifies it, families panic and make up their mind to end pregnancy without proper consultation. By now, they are convinced, they have to let go for the sake of the child’s and the mother’s health. Right here is the perfect time to break away from the myths and face a brighter reality.
Once diagnosed with Cancer during pregnancy, the treatment can be complicated than usual, as doctors aim at giving the best care for the mother as well as the baby. There is no compromise to their precious life, the goal being to cure the disease. But the method rests on various factors like
- Tumor size
- how far the patient has come in her Pregnancy
- how much has it spread
- the over all health of the patient
When the doctors are ready, the Obstetrician works with the Oncologist and a Counselor [ an added advantage for the patient] to decide on the treatment methods. For Breast Cancer, apart from Chemotherapy there are options like Hormone therapy, Targeted therapy and so on.
Mastectomy or removal of the entire breast is generally a choice doctors keep in front of pregnant women. Breast conserving surgery [BCS] normally requires radiation after the surgery. With a baby in the womb, radiation is not safe as the therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Also in many cases if women are diagnosed with Breast Cancer in the early weeks of their pregnancy, doctors advice them to end it as the first trimester experiences the growth of vital organs of the fetus. A chemo or any form of therapy is a risky proposition during this time. A full-fledged chemotherapy after 34 weeks into the pregnancy is also not recommended for the patient.
Here Elizabeth had one of the toughest battles in front of her – to protect her babies from the side effects of the treatment and to find her way out of the deadly Cancer. Her husband and their family stood behind Elizebeth like soldiers in war, ready to be the helping hands, throughout the treatment and there after. So, after a few days of sadness and depression, Elizebeth got up, ready to face the unexpected challenges troubling her since pregnancy. Her initial fears were removed by the doctors. Their reassurance gave her confidence and hope. Elizabeth had to take the same treatment any Cancer patient underwent and the doctors told her, it will in no way harm the babies’ health.
They started with a 4 course chemotherapy before delivery and 4 courses afterwards, the surgery was posted along with the Caesarian session. Once the treatment began, Elizabeth was more at ease. She said, ” If God is taking us through a challenge, he will also give the strength to overcome it if we start holding his hand. The days were spent with prayers, good thoughts and a healthy diet. Sometimes we are able to overcome our fear or anxiety by talking to our dear ones. Positive thinking also helps. We can win this battle and lead a normal life once we chuck Cancer from our body and mind. We should be strong enough to face it, battle it and kill it.”
For Elizabeth, the adverse effects of chemotherapy were not much other than hair fall and tiredness to some extent. The things that she dreaded about like losing hair or removal of the breast in surgery became much easier for her once it happened, By then Elizabeth realised, the life you get back is more precious than the little things one loses on the way.
As she puts it, ” On holding my perfectly healthy babies in my arms, I feel like the losses I had due to Cancer is nothing compared to the blessing I got after that – the two little angels from heaven. Support and care given by family is the one reason i was able to survive this period of difficulty. We used to pray as a family by holding hands and reading bible verses, especially psalms 91 and 69 which ensured us the protection of our lord. The doctors and nurses were also very caring and always received us with a smile. They helped us to understand the method we should follow during the treatment which made everything easier for us.”
After the hurdles throughout her pregnancy, Elizabeth is now the proud mother of two healthy babies. She however plans on leading from the front by helping women who go through similar situations and who need a lot of strength and support to say YES to the treatment during pregnancy.
Finally as young women ask, are the child-bearing years of women completely risk-free from Cancer? Absolutely not. Women of all ages are equally at the risk of this deadly disease. And sometimes it is pregnancies which help them diagnose, they have cancer. Doctors believe, the number of women diagnosed with Cancer will increase as more women wait till they are older to have children. The risk of getting Cancer goes up with age. Some of the common cancers diagnosed during pregnancy are
- Hodgkin Lymphoma
- Non Hodgkin Lymphoma
Research is still ongoing in this particular field where new methods of treatment are being charted out to make it even more risk free for the mother as well as the fetus. From the earlier times when termination was the first option for pregnant women suffering from Cancer, the treatments in this particular field has come a long way. As science progress for the welfare of the mother and her child, there are certain places a woman can have her say and guard oneself against this deadly disease.
- Regular check ups, before and after the child-bearing stage
- Early pregnancy rather than a late one
- Being conscious of your body and observing any unusual changes
- Avoiding unhealthy weight gain
- Avoiding alcohol and cigarettes
Together we can take control over a disease which has disrupted the balance of our well-being. And as far as myths are concerned, we need to talk less and act more to bring in positive changes to the society.