Jenise Kaliszewski and her husband, Greg, had been trying for less than a month to have a baby when Jenise noticed a painful lump near her left armpit. The pain eventually subsided, but a friend told her that she should still see a doctor. Jenise followed her friend’s suggestion, and was sent by her doctor for a sonogram and a mammogram. What happened next would be enough to frighten even the strongest of women.
“As I was getting the mammogram, the radiologist started to look like she was watching a train wreck,” Jenise told Public Opinion Online. “I asked her what was going on. She hugged me and told me I had cancer.”
But that wouldn’t be the worst news. After being sent to an oncologist to determine the next course of action, blood tests revealed that Jenise was pregnant.
“It felt like everything was hitting us all at once,” Greg told Public Opinion.
Greg was right. Cancer treatments, which usually involve surgery, anesthesia and chemotherapy and/or radiation, aren’t recommended for pregnant women. But for women in the early stages of pregnancy, these procedures are especially dangerous to the developing fetus.
“The fetus is a developing baby,” Christopher Marsh, M.D., a medical oncologist at the Regional Cancer Center. “Chemotherapy can affect rapidly dividing cells, so you always worry about doing it to a pregnant woman.”
To make matters worse, Jenise had HER-2 positive breast cancer, an aggressive type of breast cancer. She needed to start treatment immediately. A decision about the baby needed to be made; in the end, Jenise agreed to the treatments, but only if they could do it in a way that would allow her to keep the baby.
“The way my ob-gyn explained it, I was so early in my pregnancy that either I would miscarry during surgery or the embryo would be completely protected,” Jenise said.
Doctors started with a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Though Jenise only had cancer in one breast, opting to have them both removed reduce her chances of developing cancer later on. The baby handled surgery very well, which was good news. But like all of their recent good news, it was laced with some bad news; cancer had spread to at least one of Jenise’s lymph nodes.
“That was maybe the scariest moment for me,” Jenise said. “That’s when I leaned a lot on my faith, friends and my doctors, who were great.”
At that point, most women would have started chemotherapy and Herceptin, an intravenous drug specifically used for aggressive HER-2 cancers. But Jenise had to pass on the Herceptin because it’s even more toxic for a fetus than chemotherapy.
“We don’t like to give chemotherapy to pregnant women, but there are ways you can protect the baby,” Marsh said. “But Herceptin – we don’t even think about giving that during pregnancy.”
So Jenise went to Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh to meet with a fertility specialist, oncologist and high-risk ob-gyn to decide which treatment methods would be most effective at keeping the baby safe while still helping her body fight the cancer. They decided that chemotherapy could be started around Jenise’s 13th week of pregnancy, but the regimen would be altered to help reduce the risk to the baby.
Still working full time as a lead transportation security officer at Erie International Airport, Jenise didn’t suffer from any serious side effects, outside of the loss of her hair. But even with the altered chemotherapy drugs, treatment was taxing on her pregnant body.
“I’d get tired and I wouldn’t know if it was from the chemo or the pregnancy,” said Jenise, who had to go in every three weeks for a round of chemo. “The pregnancy is what helped me get through those days, looking forward to that little miracle.”
And the further along her pregnancy got, the more and more apparent it became that she’d have that little miracle to hold. Doctors carefully monitored the baby through ultrasounds, and it looked as though the baby was growing normally. Seeing that baby every single week reminded Jenise that every decision made affected her baby. But when it finally came time for the treatments to stop, she was ecstatic that she’d no longer have to put her baby at risk, just to ensure her survival.
“Through the pregnancy, I never considered just myself as a patient,” she said. “[The baby] and I were a team, both one patient – whatever procedure or treatment I went through had the potential to affect her, too. I’ll never forget the feeling I had at the last treatment we received before delivery. We were pausing partway through the treatment cycle to get my blood counts where they needed to be prior to delivering. Sitting at [the cancer center] on March 11th, it instantly hit me…she no longer had to suffer being the patient; she was now simply the daughter, and I became the patient. It was the happiest day I can recall, knowing that my baby would never have to endure that poisoning again.”
Healthy baby Brinley was finally welcomed into the world by her parents on April 7th.
“I was so happy that Brinley looked….” Greg said, holding his 1-month-old daughter against his chest.
“Healthy,” Jenise finished for him, laughing. “I was so worried about preterm labor because it’s so common with women who are pregnant and undergoing treatment.”
But not Brinely. One month later, she’s beautiful, perfect in the eyes of her parents. And all because they weren’t willing to give up something they’d wanted.
Brinely wasn’t the only good news they’d receive though. Even though Jenise still has to continue three more weeks of chemo and a year of Herceptin, her prognosis looks good.
“Her scans have been good,” Dr. Marsh said. “I think she has a good chance of being cured.”
Looking back, even after all she’s been through, Jenise says she refuses to see herself as a victim. She has a beautiful baby, and she’s managed to keep her focus on beating a disease that claims around 40,000 American women each and every year. In fact, if anything, she considers her battle with cancer to be an opportunity to inspire others because she refused to let the word “cancer” take her hope of life and a future away.
“I’m glad it was me instead of anybody else in my family,” she said. “I have seen what my family and friends have gone through during my illness. I know that I’m OK, but they don’t and they feel so helpless.”
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