Pregnancy can be an amazing gift, a time when women feel beautiful and blessed. But it also does some weird things to women’s bodies. From feet to faces, everything changes in size and shape.
That’s why Springfield’s Emily Meakim wasn’t overly concerned when she discovered a lump in her breast. She was 37 weeks into her second pregnancy—and, like her first, it had been uneventful. One night, as she was falling sleep, her left breast started to bother her; she was almost full term, and her whole body was sore. Meakim and her husband, Brendan, felt the lump and figured it was a clogged milk duct. Her next doctor visit was a week away, so she opted to wait until then to mention it to her OBGYN.
Dr. Rebecca Gould was concerned enough to order an ultra-sound. Meakim still wasn’t worried. “What were the odds that it was something serious? Zilch,” says Meakim, who was 32 years old and in good health, with no family history of breast cancer.
And like many other women, Meakim had never heard of pregnancy-associated breast cancer. PABC is a little-discussed, often fast-moving cancer fueled by shifting hormones. Such fluctuations are generally considered natural and healthy. Pregnancy is even thought to be a preventative because it provides a hormone holiday. “But if there is a malignant event, the clinical course can be accelerated by the hormonal milieu of pregnancy,” says Dr. John Sprandio, chief of medical oncology and hematology at Crozer-Keystone’s Delaware County Memorial Hospital. “We see a handful of cases on an annual basis.”
Meakim was one of them. After an ultrasound and MRI showed the mass in her breast, Meakim had an emergency biopsy at DCMH. In addition to the baby in her belly, Meakim had a 3-year-old at home, so she tried to remain calm. “I’m a mom,” she says. “We don’t allow ourselves to panic.”
The biopsy results delivered bad news. Meakim had Stage II breast cancer. Though she was due to deliver in one week, Sprandio didn’t want to wait. “An evolving breast mass during pregnancy needs to be checked out immediately,” she says. “Because of the hormonal changes and the sustained hormonal levels, pregnancy can stimulate rapid growth.”
Meakim was already dilated and the baby was a good size, so Sprandio decided to induce her. Patrick was born on Oct. 26. The following week, Meakim started chemotherapy. It was hardly the way Meakim thought she’d celebrate her new baby, but there was no time to waste.
Breastfeeding was off the table. Meakim’s body was about to be infused with powerful drugs. The only good news was that she tested negative for the BRCA mutations that have been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. If she tested positive, Sprandio would have considered a mastectomy.
As it was, getting through chemotherapy took everything Meakim had. Not only was she dealing with post-partum hormones and 2 a.m. feedings, but she had eight rounds of chemotherapy over four months. She slept for days, lost all of her hair, had bone aches and intense nausea. After the chemotherapy, Meakim had a lumpectomy. Then, there were the 33 radiation treatments.
Meakim had a big circle of support. Family and friends helped care for both kids and kept her spirits high. But Meakim says she wouldn’t have gotten through treatment without her husband. Brendan read everything he could about breast cancer and turned himself into a champion caregiver. “Sometimes I would cry in the shower for hours,” Meakim says. “Sometimes I wanted to act like a normal wife and mom. Brendan was right there for me and our kids.”
Nine months after she started treatment, the cancer was gone. Meakim has to be on hormone therapy for 10 years, and she gets checked for new masses every four months. So far, the tests are clean, though Meakim is still considering a bilateral mastectomy. “The lumpectomy left me with a quarter of a boob,” she says with a laugh. “I could have reconstruction, but why not just do it all? Then I don’t have to worry that the cancer will return.”
Meakim’s message to other women: Get every lump checked as quickly as possible, especially during pregnancy.