Cancer in new Moms; my story.

In January 2014, I started registering for local 5k races after being a member of a national women’s running group for two years. I also purchased a gym membership, and routinely worked out 2-3 times per week. These were my first two steps in planning for a healthy pregnancy. I had been married for almost three years, we were both in our early 30s, and I had decided that it was time. I felt great when participating in the races and working out. I made changes to my diet, drank more water, and really felt a sense of being in control of my health. Then, in May, I felt a smooth lump developing inside the back of my left leg. I believed it was a change in definition in my hamstring muscle since I was using the weightlifting equipment at the gym. The next month, I shared this news about the lump with my primary care provider (PCP) during my annual physical.

Small Signs

My PCP ordered an MRI. She assured me that everything was normal according to the report. The lump however didn’t go away. It didn’t hurt, burn, itch, feel inflamed, or impede my running or workouts. By late August, we learned that I was pregnant! This led to the discouraging experience of a 2-week miscarriage. It was heartbreaking news. However, at year’s end, hope returned as I was pregnant a second time. We waited anxiously until the sonogram confirmed the baby’s heartbeat. We then shared the good news only with our closest family members.

Large Signs

By mid-summer, I began to feel some swelling in the lump in my left leg. Still, I saw no need for alarm. My urine samples, blood tests, and assessments of the baby were clear. As my due date approached, my husband and I became increasingly concerned as I was unable to set my left foot on the floor when I sat down. It was not until I was in labor with baby, that my husband realized the lump had grown far larger in such a short period of time. We simply hadn’t noticed.

Report to Biopsy to Treatment

After my daughter’s birth, my aunt, an obstetric triage nurse, encouraged me to return to my PCP’s office and seek care about the lump, including having a biopsy. I must say that I have never seen facial expressions like the ones we saw from the health care providers that day. They scheduled me for radiology tests the next week and made an appointment with an orthopedic oncologist in Baltimore, MD, about an hour away. My most vivid memory is of meeting the oncologist, and sharing my story with her. She said that for my age and health status, this was not normal. The joy of having an almost 4-week old baby was dim that day. Now, things began moving fast. I was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue tumor. The multiple reports revealed how much the lump had grown since 2014 when I first recognized it. The orthopedic oncologist was the member of a healthcare team that developed my care plan. I met the radiation oncologist and his staff at a DC hospital two days after my diagnosis. We set up a treatment plan that would begin immediately, that included five weeks of daily radiation (excluding weekends). A couple of weeks into the radiation treatment, he notified me that surgery would follow. I recall feeling many conflicting emotions and being overwhelmed with planning and coordinating the care of my baby as my husband continued working. My hope increased when the radiation oncologist told me this type of cancer would not affect my baby, was not hereditary, would not prevent me from having more children, and that the goal of my care was ‘curable treatment.’

Physical Therapy to 5-Year Anniversary

My maternity leave morphed into longterm disability. Our family, friends, and co-workers were extraordinary supporters and phenomenal in caring for my daughter. I was able to return to work after six months. I went from not being able to lift my left leg backwards, to sitting criss cross applesauce (as toddlers say). The orthopedic oncologist strongly recommended that we wait two years before attempting to have a second child. She explained that this two-year timeframe is when cancer recurrence is highest after the initial diagnosis. So, we waited patiently. My fear of being unable to have more children decreased with each test that came back negative for cancer cells. Finally, we welcomed a second baby girl in October 2018. There were no health issues during my second pregnancy. Over time, my incision healed. There is scarring on my left leg that is sensitive to touch, and the muscle occasionally cramps up, but the lump has not returned. My family and I were beyond thankful when we added a third daughter in August 2020. My five-year cancer-free anniversary is January 2021.

One key piece of advice that I now share with expectant and new moms is to not minimize, deny, or set aside any internal or external physical or emotional feeling that you experience.

Cancer in New Moms: Lessons Learned

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help
  • As your budget allows, ask friends or hire help in caring for your children so that you can pay attention to your health
  • Pump milk in the car while driving; use a hands free pump or one with a car charger
  • Seek out cancer support resources for young women; they do exist
  • Advocate for yourself: Take notes, make a list of your questions, and be sure to get answers about the treatment and costs
  • Respond to health care provider and facility surveys; your words have power. Give honest feedback when the service is amazing or when you experience disrespectful care
  • Pay it forward. Your survivor experience can position you to offer some helpful guidance to others who may receive a cancer diagnosis; share your story only when asked to do so
  • Remember your health: A diagnosis of one type of cancer doesn’t prevent another. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in U.S. women; continue with monthly self-breast exams

Here are some more articles that may help avoid cancer in new Moms.

Tobacco During Pregnancy: Quitting Anytime Helps

Breast Cancer Screening

Cancer Prevention: Confused About Cervical Cancer.



Brea N. Onokpise, MPH, LCCE, MCHES®, is Associate Director of Publications at AWHONN and a Lamaze-certified childbirth educator in the Washington, DC area.

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