When Stacy Gross found a hard lump high up on her right breast, it wasn’t a moment of panic. After all, she was four months pregnant and milk was starting to fill into her breasts, which can sometimes cause minor problems.
“It happens,” said Stacy’s best friend, Kimberly Nujin, a mother of two. “You get knots in your breasts because of the milk forming and they hurt. It actually feels like a ball. I told her put a warm compress on it and massage it. We were just thinking it was clogged up milk.”
Her obstetrician’s nurse told her the same thing. But the knot didn’t go away. In fact, it got a little bigger. Her obstetrician, Dr. Calvin Hobbs, did an ultrasound at University Hospital and then sent her upstairs the same day to surgeon Randy Cooper, who did another ultrasound.
“(He said) I’m 99 percent sure this is breast cancer,” Stacy said. “I’m kind of in blackout mode when he said that.”
It is rare and estimates range widely about just how rare – breast cancer occurs in approximately one in every 1,000 to 10,000 pregnancies, according to the American Cancer Society, while others estimate one in every 2,000-3,000. But most agree it is increasing in part because women are waiting longer to have children and increasing maternal age is the biggest risk factor, said Dr. Elyce Cardonick, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist with Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, N.J., who runs a registry for pregnant women battling cancer.
“Our population is either completing their families later or starting their families later and cancer is being diagnosed earlier and earlier,” she said. “And the two populations, the pregnant population and the cancer patients, are crisscrossing more than they did when women would finish their childbearing by their 30s.”
What most people and even many doctors don’t realize is that cancer can be treated, even with chemotherapy, while the patient is still pregnant, depending on the stage of the pregnancy.
“People do get nervous when it comes to pregnant patients,” Cardonick said. “ ‘She has a mole on her leg, I can’t remove it, I can’t do surgery because she is pregnant.’ Yes, you can. ‘I can’t give her anesthesia or painkillers because she is pregnant.’ Yes, you can.”
In Stacy’s case, it is propofol that she gets during her lumpectomy. Her case will only be complicated by the fact that during the sentinel lymph node biopsy, when ordinarily Cooper would inject a blue dye to help him find the draining lymph nodes, the dye can’t be used in pregnant patients.
“It’s almost like he is going in somewhat blind,” Stacy said.
Not that it, or anything else, seems to slow down Dr. Cooper in the operating room at University. He draws a diamond around the three-centimeter rock-hard lump that sits close to her armpit. In five minutes of quick cutting, it is out and he is working on taking out the margins around it.
He spends about 15 minutes digging out seven lymph nodes before he is done and begins closing her up. On a fingernail on her right hand, Stacy sports a tiny pink ribbon.
In the waiting room, Cooper is giving Stacy’s mother, Jessie, the good news.
“It could not have gone any easier,” he tells her.
Still, her eyes are filled with tears.
“I prayed about it, put it in God’s hands and I feel so much better about it now,” Jessie said.
Though Stacy is 31 and a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve, Jessie still calls her “my baby.” And though she has three grandchildren already, this little girl will be special.
“I’m going to call her my little miracle baby,” Jessie said.