Pregnant With Cancer: One Woman's Journey : Shots - Health News Mary Harris found out she was pregnant the day before she had scheduled surgery for breast cancer. It turns out there is limited data on how chemotherapy during pregnancy affects a baby.
NPR logo

Pregnant With Cancer: One Woman's Journey

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/384010384/385267336" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pregnant With Cancer: One Woman's Journey

Pregnant With Cancer: One Woman's Journey

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/384010384/385267336" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mary Harris found out she was pregnant at about the same time she found out she had breast cancer. Her remarkable story is the next part in our series, Living Cancer. Harris is the health editor at member station WNYC. We're collaborating with them on this series. And as we're about to here, she recorded her experience along the way.

MARY HARRIS, BYLINE: For years, my husband Mark and I had been wrestling with the idea of having a second kid - a sibling for our son, Leo.

LEO: I love you, but I'm drawing a comic book right now.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

Two weeks after we decided to try, we found a lump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK: There's a chance this could be bad, but it's probably not going to be bad, and let's just act like it's not going to be bad. And if it turns out to be bad, we'll deal with that when it happens.

HARRIS: I was so pissed. I was like, this can't be happening. Like, we've just finally made this decision after, like, years of debate that we're going to have the second kid, and all of the sudden, this thing gets in the way. And you know what? Eighty percent chance it's going to be fine. This is going to be fine.

This is Mark and me a few months after we found that lump. The biopsy was on a Thursday. We were supposed to get the results on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK: And that weekend, Mary says, basically, you are going to get me pregnant this weekend.

HARRIS: (Laughter) I didn't say it like that.

MARK: She didn't say it exactly like that.

HARRIS: I did not say it like that.

MARK: But I think in the back of her mind was the sense that this may be - like, I mean, in retrospect, that weekend was actually the last chance that we were ever going to have to try to have a second kid because then on Tuesday she discovered that...

HARRIS: Monday.

MARK: Well, Monday she got the call saying, come in tomorrow.

HARRIS: The doctor told me we found one-centimeter tumor - small, but I needed surgery right away. And trying for a second kid - that was over. And then the day before a supposed to get a lumpectomy, routine blood work showed I was already pregnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK: I think we were stunned.

HARRIS: I was just stunned.

MARK: Because the thing to remember is, like, at that point, everybody was treating this like really bad news.

HARRIS: We just started weeping. We were like, oh my God, like, what are we going to do?

MARLEEN MEYERS: I think knee-jerk, going by the book, safest decision is you have an abortion and then you have surgery and chemotherapy.

HARRIS: That's Marleen Meyers. She's my oncologist at NYU. We never wanted to consider termination, but I told her the plan is not for me to have a second kid and leave Mark to raise the two of them.

MARK: There was like a real, like, you know, oh my God, like, are we going to have to terminate in order to move forward with Mary's care in an acceptable way? Everybody was, like, terrified.

HARRIS: But we knew they had to get the tumor out, so we decided to do the surgery, hoping the fetus survived the operation. The initial news from my surgeon, Freya Schnabel, was good.

FREYA SCHNABEL: When the pathology report came back - good margins, good lymph nodes. Woah. That was a really good moment.

HARRIS: But Mark and I couldn't relax without visiting the obstetrician. It was the first time I heard a heartbeat, but we weren't finished.

SCHNABEL: Patients in the third trimester - we know now that it's safe to give chemotherapy. But Mary is in the first trimester.

HARRIS: Chemo - oncologists have begun offering it to pregnant patients after the first trimester, but no one feels particularly comfortable with it, and it seemed impossible that the treatment could be safe, especially for the baby. One of the only people to study all this is a doctor named Frederic Amant in Geneva. So before I made any decisions, I asked him for advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDERIC AMANT: The chance that you recover from the disease is independent from your pregnancy, actually.

HARRIS: And the baby?

AMANT: If you put 10 children in a row, and you say, two received chemotherapy during pregnancy, you will be unable to identify these children.

HARRIS: He sounds so matter-of-fact, but he gave me permission to do something that sounds crazy, keep the baby, get the chemo. We told Leo he was going to have a sibling - a baby girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Do you actually believe I'm pregnant? Do you actually believe you're going to have a baby sister?

LEO: I kind of believe you. I believe you a little. I kind of do not believe you.

HARRIS: No one including us for a little while, like, really wanted to get attached...

MARK: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...to this baby.

MARK: It's just harder not to be worrying about the health of the baby when, like, all of a sudden, like, you can feel her kicking and you can see her as, like, a baby on the sonogram and all that stuff.

HARRIS: The closer we got to starting chemo, the worse we felt about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK: I mean, I think the chemo is going to be really hard.

HARRIS: My, like, first real communication with my child is going to be chemotherapy. I just feel so guilty 'cause I feel like I got myself into this pickle, and I kind of dragged another person with me.

MARK: Which I don't understand. You're like...

HARRIS: I know you don't get it at all, but I feel so bad.

MARK: No, 'cause you're like - you manage to get yourself - you're like, I see the pregnancy window closing, and I'm sliding - I'm like Indiana Jones. I'm underneath that, like, closing door. I don't care if there's giant boulders coming after me. I'm slipping through.

HARRIS: The safest chemo to give during pregnancy is nicknamed the red devil, and three weeks after I started treatment, my hair began to fall out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: All right.

MARK: Are we doing it?

HARRIS: I guess. (Unintelligible).

LEO: Shave it. Start your shaver.

MARK: I mean, here's the thing.

HARRIS: You can see where it's pulling out.

MARK: We're pulling the Band-Aid off, baby.

HARRIS: I know.

LEO: You know what?

(CLIPPERS BUZZING)

HARRIS: Why is this so much more emotional than anything else?

MARK: Because when you walk down the street, you're going to look like a cancer patient now. And that hasn't been true until now.

HARRIS: By the time I finished chemo, I was eight and a half months pregnant and totally bald. Every week I got a new ultrasound to make sure the baby seemed healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: She's growing. (Laughter) You know, who knows? Like, hopefully she's not growing in some weird way, but she's growing.

It was making me a little crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Now I'm really preoccupied with really minor details. Like, I need to get the room painted and, like, I need to buy sheets - (laughter) like try to make it up to her. You know, like, be like, look. I have all this, like, stuff for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEO: So I'm in the car, and my mom is - says her water broke. So I'm going to have a sleepover. I'm going to be kind of scared for my mom and...

MARK: All right, Leo. We got to go see Amelie. Are you ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, what? What, what, what?

(BABY CRYING)

HARRIS: (Laughter).

We named her Stella. A few weeks after she was born, I had to head back to the cancer center for radiation. Sometimes they played music to distract me from the heavy machinery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BUZZING AND MUSIC)

HARRIS: And then after all that, it was over. Sometimes now, Mark and I talk about what things would have been like if I hadn't gotten pregnant. The cancer treatment would have been simpler, but it all would have been so much sadder, too. My surgeon tells me now I should get back to normal.

I mean, I just have so much life left, you know what I mean? Like, I just don't know if I'm going to keep seeing you.

SCHNABEL: OK, you have another breast.

HARRIS: Right. (Laughter).

SCHNABEL: You're a young person. You've got another breast.

HARRIS: Got another one.

SCHNABEL: There is a chance of recurrence on the left. We also - all of us - all of us are going to be very happy for you to get to a place where breast cancer doesn't define you anymore.

HARRIS: Right, right.

I don't know when I'm going to feel like we're OK, she's OK. Did I wreck her fertility? Did I make her have heart issues later in life? Did I affect her intelligence? Who knows? It's the worry of any parent, but it's magnified. But whenever I look at her I know that...

SCHNABEL: She looks perfect. She looks perfect.

HARRIS: ...I did the right thing.

SCHNABEL: This is really somebody who needed to come into the world, so we're going to expect great things from her.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

MARK: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Exactly. No pressure.

SCHNABEL: No pressure.

SIEGEL: That's Mary Harris talking with her doctors and family. Her story was produced by Paige Cowett. Our series, Living Cancer, is produced with member station WNYC and with WETA whose documentary, "Cancer: The Emperor Of All Maladies," will air on PBS next month.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.