Pregnancy is one of the happiest times of many women’s lives – a time of excitement, mixed with understandable trepidation. But for some, everyday worries about birth, parenting and sleepless nights are thrown into disarray by something much more serious: breast cancer.
According to research undertaken by the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service developing the disease during pregnancy is rare, affecting one in 1000 UK women every year. But while it is relatively uncommon, researchers warn that rates of pregnancy-associated cancer are increasing – and say this could partly be linked to women having children later in life. Another study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week , suggests a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases in the first few years after giving birth, but then falls to a lower level than that of women who hadn’t had children.
We spoke to four women who have been through the heart-breaking experience of finding out they’re desperately ill, at a time they want to feel strongest. Their stories are ones of empathy, caution and hope.
Laura: ‘Give yourself permission to cry, shout (and laugh)’
Author and blogger Laura Pearson, from Leicestershire found a lump in her breast the morning of her 20-week scan. She was 35.
“I was getting dressed when I noticed a small, hard lump in my right breast, just beneath the nipple,” she says. “An hour or so later, I was sitting in the hospital waiting room for our scan. I was thinking about names for the baby. And then I remembered the lump, and I thought, quite simply, that I might have cancer.”
Laura, now 38, half-expected the diagnosis to be a joke: it was April Fool’s Day. Her biggest fear? That she’d have to terminate her pregnancy. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary – but she still had to tell people, including her two-year-old son, Joseph.
“There are things that are harder than being the one who’s ill,” Laura wrote shortly before undergoing surgery to remove the tumour at 28 weeks pregnant. “I want [Joseph] to understand I won’t be able to pick him up for a while, but we’ll still be able to cuddle. He seems to grasp it when we have the conversation, but when I bring it up again, it’s gone. He’s just learned ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by heart, and it’s taking up a lot of space in his little head.”
Laura was induced at 35 weeks and her daughter Elodie was born. Two-and-a-half tough years on, she said the support she received from organisations Mummy’s Star – the only charity of its kind which specifically supports those affected by cancer in pregnancy – and closed Facebook group, the Younger Breast Cancer Network, was invaluable. She has a heartfelt message for the women going through the same situation.
“To the newly diagnosed. I am sorry,” Laura said. “I know a lot of what you have coming, and very little of it is good. Give yourself permission to cry and shout when you need to. Give yourself permission to not get anything done some days; to wallow and wail. Chances are, you’ll be offered some kind of counselling. Grab it with both hands. And if it feels right, try your hand at creating some kind of art to reflect your experience.
“When people ask you to let them know if there’s anything they can do, say thank you, then give them very specific things to do. “Bring me a lasagne on Tuesday, please.” Laugh. You won’t always be able to, but ... laugh with your chemo nurses, who (if they’re anything like mine) will be incredible people. Laugh with your friends, who (if they’re anything like mine) might send you gifts like trays of cakes with poo emojis on them.”
Sonia: ‘It’s hard having choices taken away from you’
Sonia Phillips, 29, from Lancashire, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2018, when she was seven months pregnant with her second daughter. She was told that while there was no direct risk to the baby, she would need to have labour induced at 36 weeks.
“It was hard not to feel guilty about the fact that she’d be born early because of me,” Sonia says. “They knew very little about the cancer at that stage so I had to wait quite a long time before we knew that I didn’t have cancer anywhere else in my body. It was an incredibly worrying time.”
When Sonia’s daughter was born, she was only allowed to breastfeed her for two weeks – compared to 13 months with her eldest child. “It’s been so hard having so many choices taken away from me,” she said. “I breastfed as much as possible and expressed milk to freeze before the chemotherapy started, but the fact that I can’t have those wonderful bonding cuddles with her now is still one of the hardest things about the whole experience. I’ve missed out on her babyhood and that’s something I’ll never get back.”
“Know that you’re strong and can get through this, even when you feel at your weakest”
Sonia, who’s just finished her last round of chemotherapy, says that as well as the pain – she’s suffered extreme fatigue, joint pain, nausea, cramps, hair loss, dry skin and reflux – she’s also had to deal with a loss of control. “It’s forced me to depend entirely on other people and trust them,” she said. “I can’t check that the dishwasher has been loaded the right way or that my toddler goes to bed on time. I can’t breastfeed my baby or even get out of bed on my worst days.”
Balancing a cancer diagnosis and a new baby affects mental health, she says. “It’s hard to admit you’re not coping emotionally; much harder than admitting you need physical help – especially when you’re a mother and you worry that people will question your ability to parent if you admit you’re not coping.
“It took me months to reach out. I’d advise other women in similar situations to accept all the help you can get. Know that you’re strong and that you can get through this, even when you feel at your weakest.”
Carolyn: ‘Ask questions. Be as informed as possible’
Former college lecturer Carolyn Gammon, 45, from Port Talbot was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, when she was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child. “My breast felt rounder than usual – but I didn’t think there was anything wrong. I thought it was just because I was pregnant. But then I noticed some changes – a redness, a faint flush, my nipple becoming inverted – and could feel something under the skin. Within two weeks I’d been referred.”
Carolyn began chemotherapy just weeks after being diagnosed with a 5.6cm cancerous tumour. By the time she’d finished, she was 34 weeks pregnant. “I was prepared for chemo to be worse but I had no sickness. Then the fatigue hit. I had really bad muscle and joint pain, but because I was pregnant, I could only take paracetamol,” she says.
“I don’t remember being terrified about what was going to happen,” she adds. “But at that point, I didn’t know anything about secondary breast cancer.”
Three weeks after giving birth, Carolyn had a mastectomy. “On the morning of the operation, I was told the CT and MRI scans had showed the cancer had spread to my lungs and liver,” she said. “I was given a prognosis of between two to five years.”
Two-and-a-half years on, Carolyn is busy raising money to access life-extending cancer drugs that are not routinely available on the NHS in Wales. Her advice? “Ask questions. Be as informed as possible. I didn’t know anything about secondary breast cancer. Nobody explained it was incurable. I wish they had, because if I had realised what was at stake, I might have made different decisions.”
Colette: ‘I’m enjoying trying to find my new normal’
Sometimes a cancer diagnosis comes just after a pregnancy – as was the case for Colette Rankin, diagnosed in July 2017 when her youngest daughter was just nine months old.
“When I was diagnosed my initial thoughts were about my children,” says the now 31-year-old. “I was worried at the thought of them potentially growing up without me.” Colette was offered a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction followed by chemotherapy. But it came at a tough time – Christmas.
“The chemo made me quite poorly and I was in and out of hospital,” she says. “This was worse at Christmas. I’d been looking forward to taking them to see Father Christmas which had been booked for months. But I couldn’t go.”
Colette says the effects of treatment – which left her infertile – were particularly hard to deal with. “It left me with no hair and I put on a lot of weight as I was so inactive,” she said. “Emotionally, I found this very hard.”
“There is an amazing group of women out there who know what you’re going through”
After a second mastectomy, Colette is now classed as having ‘no evidence of disease’, and is even back at work: “I’m enjoying trying to find my new normal,” she says,
“My advice to anyone going through this would be to keep hold of hope. Accept support with things that can be done by other people so that you have as much energy as possible for your children. Reach out to charities like Mummy’s Star. There is an amazing group of women out there who know what you’re going through.”
Debunked: 5 Myths About Breast Cancer In Pregnancy
With Catherine Priestley, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Care.
1) I’ll have to terminate my pregnancy.
“There is a misconception that ending the pregnancy means a better chance of surviving the cancer, so many women worry they must make this terrible choice. However, there is no evidence to support this, and most women safely continue the pregnancy during treatment.”
2) Drugs might hurt my baby.
“Another question we regularly hear on our Helpline is whether breast cancer and its treatment could harm the baby. There’s no evidence the disease itself affects a baby’s development in the womb, and a treatment plan is always put in place to make sure both mother and baby are as safe as possible.”
3) I can’t have surgery.
“Surgery, including a lumpectomy or mastectomy, can be done throughout all trimesters, and certain combinations of chemotherapy drugs can be given. However, chemotherapy is avoided during the first trimester as it may harm the baby or cause miscarriage.”
4) I should feel guilty for not breastfeeding.
“Although breastfeeding may be possible for some women after surgery, it’s not recommended for women going through treatment like chemotherapy, hormone therapy or radiotherapy (which could cause mastitis). Not being able to breastfeed can be very upsetting, but we can reassure women it won’t impact their ability to bond with the baby and that they can seek support from a breastfeeding expert, like their midwife.”
5) I’m on my own.
“Being diagnosed while pregnant is not common and can feel incredibly isolating, so it’s important women know where to find support. Breast Cancer Care can put anyone affected in touch with someone else who was diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy through our Someone Like Me service.”
You can speak to Breast Cancer Care’s expert nurses for free on 0808 800 6000 and read more about breast cancer during pregnancy here.