Elgin, IL - When Jennifer Byrnes, a 32-year old and mother of three young children, detected a lump in her breast she was immediately concerned. Her concern was exacerbated by the fact that her aunt and three great-aunts had all undergone treatment for breast cancer. A biopsy revealed the worst possible news. Jennifer had an aggressive and invasive form of breast cancer. Additionally, her form of cancer is hormone sensitive and cancer treatments would prevent future pregnancy.
“But God had other plans,” said Jennifer. During pre-testing for the surgery, Jennifer got the shock of her life. She was already pregnant.
Specialists at the Bob & Edna Meadows Regional Cancer Care Center at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital - Elgin collaborated with Jennifer’s obstetrician to develop a plan of care to treat Jennifer’s aggressive cancer and not cause harm to Jennifer’s unborn baby.
“I knew I wanted another child and after hearing I shouldn’t get pregnant again, I was already thinking of adoption or freezing my eggs. It was a blessing to find out I was pregnant, but also extremely distressing,” says Jennifer.
Breast cancer during pregnancy is very rare and found in only about 1 in every 3,000 women, according to the American Cancer Society. Jennifer’s oncologist C. Yeshwant, MD, FACP, explains that treating the cancer and protecting the unborn baby made this case more challenging than most.
“Jennifer’s pregnancy was still in the first trimester, a crucial period of growth for the baby, and this made it difficult to perform surgery or start treatment immediately. Additionally, we had to protect her baby from exposure to radiation. So, radiation therapy was not an option,” said Dr. Yeshwant.
Jennifer carefully weighed the risk of waiting several weeks until her pregnancy entered the second trimester in order to give the baby time to develop. “I knew I needed to get rid of this cancer as quickly as possible, and I truly valued this new life inside me. I was so scared. What would this mean for my unborn child? What would this mean for my health?” says Jennifer.
A positive sign -- tests revealed Jennifer’s cancer was most likely Stage 1. “Jennifer’s cancer was caught early due to her early detection of a lump in her breast,” said Dr. Yeshwant. “Early stage cancer has a much better prognosis. We felt confident that we could delay treatment for a couple of weeks.”
Once her mind was put to rest that the baby would be safe, Jennifer agreed to wait until the second trimester to undergo surgery. Due to her pregnancy, breast conserving therapy, such as lumpectomy and local radiation was not an option. Jennifer elected to undergo a double mastectomy. However, even at 8-weeks gestation, it was still too risky for general anesthesia. Instead, the surgery was performed with Jennifer under light sedation and pain controlled with a complex spinal block.
Following surgery, Jennifer underwent four rounds of chemotherapy to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. “Pregnancy does complicate administration of chemotherapy. It cannot be given until the second trimester and certain chemotherapy drugs are not safe for the developing baby,” said Dr. Yeshwant. “A treatment plan was developed using select chemotherapy drugs which will help Jennifer and not harm the baby.”
“I went directly from morning sickness, to feeling nauseous from chemotherapy,” says Jennifer. But fortunately, medications helped with the side effects of chemo and except for feeling really tired, Jennifer says she is doing well.
With chemotherapy completed, Jennifer is looking forward to gaining her strength - and her hair growing back - in advance of her due date in October. According to Dr. Yeshwant, Jennifer’s prognosis is very good as the surgery and chemotherapy will increase chances of curing the cancer significantly.
Jennifer credits the team at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital - Elgin for supporting her physically and emotionally during this journey.
“Everyone has been so great…the physicians, the nurse navigator Linda, Katrina and all my nurses, Pastor Don, my social worker Lisa…they are like family. I feel so comfortable and confident in their care,” said Jennifer. “Being pregnant while undergoing breast cancer treatment is hard, but it also helps me emotionally. This baby is a gift from God and it reminds me how precious life is.”
The Bob & Edna Meadows Regional Cancer Care Center at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital – Elgin provides patients with the highest level of technology at every stage of their cancer care. The Center features a spacious infusion center, the area’s highest level of radiation technology, oncology support services, nutrition therapy, a nurse navigator program, and cancer rehabilitation. An environment of healing and hope, the Center has been awarded the coveted Community Cancer Center designation from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer.
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About Presence Saint Joseph Hospital- Elgin
Presence Saint Joseph Hospital in Elgin is known for providing leading-edge technologies and holistic care with compassion for the individual. We offer a comprehensive range of high quality preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic services including acute inpatient care, outpatient care, home health, and educational outreach programs. Recognized for advanced heart, orthopedics, stroke, cancer and rehabilitation services; Presence Saint Joseph is a part of Presence Health.
About Presence Health
Created in November 2011, presence Health is the largest Catholic health system based in Illinois. With over 150 sites of care, including 12 hospitals Presence Health has 20,000 employees, 4,000 medical professionals and a revenue base of $2.6 billion.