Confronting the What-Ifs of Cancer During Pregnancy

November 2, 2017

Cancer during pregnancy challenges the entire family.

TERROR. DISBELIEF. SHOCK. Those aren’t words that typically describe a woman’s emotions while she excitedly awaits the birth of her baby. But when a pregnancy is coupled with cancer, the experience is anything but typical.

For many pregnant women diagnosed with cancer and their families, uncertainty and fear create a lonely space filled with “what-ifs.”

Breaching that loneliness is part of the mission of Hope for Two (hopefortwo.org), which connects pregnant women who have cancer with others who’ve been through that situation. “There are plenty of organizations that address anxiety, but our mission is about offering hope,” says Susan Musialowski, patient coordinator. “We’re here to show that positive outcomes can happen. We walk that journey with them and let them know they’re not alone.”

Juliette Graziano, of Miami Beach, Florida, who learned she had breast cancer while pregnant with her second child, says that her assigned Hope for Two peer was one of the most important connections she made after her diagnosis. “I love her, and I still talk to her,” she says. “Back then, visiting the website and seeing pictures of moms who were bald, holding their babies? I needed to see that. Just to see that and know it was happening brought me a lot of peace.”

Graziano says she worked hard to avoid focusing on negative possibilities. “I had one vision of one outcome, and I did everything I could to reinforce that,” she says. She leaned on family and friends, used guided meditation and did her best to shut out negative influences. “It’s such a critical situation,” she says. “I didn’t deal with anything that was remotely stressful.”

Cancer during pregnancy challenges the entire family, particularly if other children are at home, says Julian Schink, M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. He suggests reaching out to a hospital social worker to be connected with resources that can help families cope.

He also encourages women and their families to learn about studies showing how children whose mothers were treated for cancer during pregnancy fare long-term. “People have looked downstream at kids whose moms have had cancer,” he says. “Generally, there’s been no cognitive impairment.”

Elyce Cardonick, M.D., a maternalfetal medicine specialist who runs the Pregnancy & Cancer Registry at Cooper Medical School, in Camden, New Jersey, agrees, saying data have shown children who were in utero while their mothers were treated for cancer develop normally, without adverse effects, when compared with their siblings, children of women with cancer who did not receive chemotherapy, and children of women without cancer.

Ultimately, managing the fears and worries associated with being treated for cancer while pregnant came down to faith, says Jessica DeNoble, of Los Angeles, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her first child.

“I’m a religious person, and I think I became more religious,” she says. “I knew I could handle it and I did handle it. I had to give up control and trust the process. I had to believe that treatment was safe and that I would be OK.”


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