I was 34 years old and seven-and-a-half months pregnant when I felt a lump in my breast. It was the week before my baby shower. At first I thought, “My body is changing so much because of my pregnancy, it’s probably nothing,” but I figured I would just mention it to my doctor at my next prenatal appointment. She thought it was most likely a cyst, but ordered an ultrasound just to be sure. I knew when the technologist called the doctor into the room during the ultrasound that something was wrong.
The doctor wouldn’t give me any information — she just told me to call my obstetrician. I called my doctor on the way home from the ultrasound and she told me to come into her office immediately. I remember asking her on the phone if it was bad, and she said, “It isn’t good.”
By the time my husband and I arrived at the office, my doctor had scheduled me for appointments with my amazing team at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper — Dr. Kristin Brill a breast surgeon; Dr. Generosa Grana, a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer; and Dr. Elyce Cardonick, an ob/gyn who specializes in caring for women diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy. Everything was happening so fast.
Dr. Brill called me at home the next night and told me that she scheduled me for a biopsy the next day with Dr. Lydia Liao, Director of Women’s Imaging at Cooper Breast Imaging Centers. The biopsy was done on a Friday and I received the results the following Monday. After Dr. Brill confirmed that it was cancer, she left the room and Helen Nichter, her nurse practitioner, came in and shared with me that she too was a breast cancer survivor. That moment was a game changer for me. Seeing somebody standing before me who had fought the same fight and was now alive and well gave me hope immediately that I would be OK. Helen and I have since become very close friends — survivor sisters forever.
I met with Dr. Grana to discuss my course of treatment. I then met with Dr. Cardonick. She works with the cancer team, helping decide what treatment options are the best and safest for both the mother and baby. I was lucky — I was far enough along in my pregnancy for my daughter Amelia to be delivered safely, so I could get started on chemotherapy right away. I delivered Amelia without any problems, but she needed to spend time in the NICU because she was premature. I remember leaving the hospital without my baby, knowing I had cancer and not knowing what the future held for me or my family.
A few days after Amelia was born, I had a PET-CT scan so the doctors could get a better idea of what was going on. I received a call from Dr. Grana with the results while I was in the NICU visiting Amelia. I could tell from her voice that it wasn’t good news. I remember her saying, “I’m concerned. The PET-CT shows some abnormalities.” My parents and I immediately went to her office where she explained that the cancer had spread to my liver.
I never researched anything online about my diagnosis. Instead, I searched for stories of hope and inspiration… and I found them. Other women shared their stories of survival with advanced cancer and they kept me going. That is what helped me go into fight mode.
I didn’t cry much — only once or twice. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. My family, my faith and my resolve to be there to raise Amelia kept me strong. I knew I was in good hands with my team of MD Anderson Cooper and I just had to keep moving forward so I could be around to raise Amelia. That was the question I asked everyone I met in the cancer program, over and over again: “Am I going to be able to raise my daughter?”
It was my only hope, my only concern. Amelia was happy and healthy. But I never imagined that I would spend my maternity leave going to chemo treatments in between caring for my newborn.
There was some good news. Even though the cancer had spread to my liver, special genetic testing showed that my cancer was HER2-positive. This information was important to my treatment. Today, researchers better understand what fuels HER2-positive breast cancer and targeted therapies have been developed that interfere with its growth, making it a very treatable disease.
I started chemotherapy two weeks after Amelia was born. My initial round of treatment lasted for six months. My dad came to every chemo appointment (and still does), while my mom spent the day with Amelia. He'd get me a bagel and coffee at the café in the cancer center after I settled in at the chemo unit. I’d bring my laptop and he would bring his iPad. He would keep me company during the four-plus hours of chemo. We got to know the amazing nurses in the chemo unit and made friends with some of the patients, too. I lost my hair a few weeks into treatment and hated my wigs and scarves, but it grew back — and now it’s curly, like my daughter’s
I had a team of people both at home and at MD Anderson Cooper to help me. In addition to my doctors and Helen, my nurse navigator Angela Frantz, RN, put me in touch with the support services I needed and answered all of my questions
There was an overwhelming amount of information to take in and decisions to be made, but I had the resources I needed to make the decisions that were right for me.
After my initial round of chemo I had a lumpectomy to remove tissue where the tumor was in my breast. And soon after the surgery I received great news from Dr. Brill — the pathology was clear — there were no signs of cancer. I was finally cancer-free. We decided go ahead with radiation treatment to the tumor site to reduce my risk of the cancer recurring. Dr. Sucha Asbell, a radiation oncologist, and her team were all amazing and supportive. I remember Dr. Asbell telling me, “You’re a soldier, Madiraca.” Those words always stayed with me.
My journey did not end with radiation. I still get infusions of Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks to keep the cancer from coming back and will have to do that for the rest of my life. I bring my laptop to the infusion unit and work while my dad sits next to me and reads the paper. My mom joins us for every other treatment. After my treatment I head to the office to finish my work day
I have come a long way since I found that lump. In a weird way, cancer is actually the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me that every single day — good or bad — is truly a gift. It also introduced me to some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They are the real-life superheroes who work at MD Anderson Cooper, and they are saving lives just like mine every day.