comfort, nurse, illness,

Evangelizing for Life – Chemo While Pregnant

comfort, nurse, illness,

Pope Francis has repeatedly urged us to evangelize. His oft repeated message calls us to share the word of God where we are, saying, “The Church must be in the streets”. As a passionate pro-life advocate, my participation in this call often centers on the sanctity of life. As His creatures, God’s first gift to us is our very being. In as much as He is the author of life, we owe Him our utmost effort in preserving it.

Evangelizing by Sharing a Personal Story

Our family has had its share of opportunities for ‘walking the talk’ when it comes to the pro-life message. One such story – finding myself to be a pregnant 14-year-old – has been a past topic. Another is the experience our daughter, Erika, lived when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 20 weeks pregnant. Sharing her story has been a valuable tool for reaching out to those in similar circumstances – a surprisingly significant segment of society. That she was given only two options – abortion followed by treatment or waiting until after birth for treatment – is typical of advice most frequently given across the country. Often we see stories of a virtuous, heroic mother who forgoes treatments in deference to the life of the child she is carrying. What isn’t as commonplace is the medically advanced, morally sound option of treatment while pregnant. This is the alternative I feel a spiritual pull to share. After all, both mother and child deserve the best chance of survival!

Knowledge is a Powerful Ally

Unfortunately there’s much misinformation out there. For this reason, our daughter, a molecular biologist, Howard Hughes research scholar, and former forensic biologist did her share of research when presented with two unacceptable options by local doctors. What she found was that chemotherapy during pregnancy does not raise the risk of miscarriage or other problems. In fact, the oncologists who treated her at M.D. Anderson in Houston had been successfully using this method for over 20 years. Although these children continue to be closely monitored, there have been no incidents of detrimental effects to date. This option is as safe for the unborn child as that of no treatment. Even though our daughter was high risk for miscarriage (4 occurrences prior to her second live birth), her doctor assured her the option of chemotherapy treatment would not increase her risk.

According to Erika, “The maternal-fetal doctor I saw in Houston told me that the biggest ‘risk’ of chemo treatments while pregnant was the increased likelihood of early contractions. However, she again assured me that a) any time a pregnant woman is stressed, she’s likely to have contractions and b) those contractions are rarely productive”.

So what causes all of the misconceptions and why isn’t this scientifically proven method more commonly shared? Perhaps doctors poorly explain or fail to acknowledge the truth. It’s also possible that doctors aren’t as familiar with chemotherapy during pregnancy as they could be. Every woman presented with a cancer diagnosis while pregnant is free to choose what she feels is best, but being armed with the facts – all of them – should be a vital part of that decision-making process.

A Happy Outcome for Both

As is typical, the outcome proved to be win-win when our healthy, full term granddaughter was born on Thanksgiving Day 2009. She joined all of the other ‘chemo babies’ of the past 25+ years, whose mothers had an increased chance of surviving a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy. Today, Rachel is a precocious 4-year-old who ranks in the 90th percentile in height and weight for her age group. She’s a beginning reader who aspires to out run her rambunctious 6-year-old brother. Whenever we are out and about, her disarming smile is sure to garner comments and begin conversations. In true evangelizing style, we never miss an opportunity to express our gratitude to God for this living miracle of ours. Many a stranger has walked away from a checkout line or gathering, knowing that a cancer diagnosis while pregnant doesn’t have to be a death sentence – for the child or the mother.

Evangelizing for Life - Chemo While Pregnant
(l) Rachel, born healthy after Erika received chemo while pregnant. (r) Three generations of breast cancer treatment survivors!

Erika has just passed her 5th ‘cancerversary’ and continues to beat the odds with which our gene pool has burdened her. As the fifth generation of women with the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, she has now outlived all but one of her predecessors after diagnosis. I’m the other, with eight years of survival. In all likelihood, had aggressive treatment been denied, our children would be without mothers now.

The recurring tales of mothers who unselfishly choose to forgo chemotherapy are undeniably virtuous and, yes, heroic, but they tragically fail to acknowledge the valid scientific facts of what my daughter and granddaughter are living proof. According to Jennifer K. Litton, MD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Breast Medical Oncology at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, “Not offering treatment during pregnancy has the potential of causing significant harm to the patient, and thus the fetus, as delay of therapy may cause further tumor spread both locally and distally, decreasing the overall chance for cure”.  Thus armed with scientific support, it’s our life-affirming mission to educate in any and every way possible – so that others may benefit from what we have experienced. After all, who wouldn’t want what’s best for both mother and child if given a viable and moral choice?

© Copyright 2014. Birgit Jones. All Rights Reserved