Lauren Smoke, a 34-year-old teacher from Chicago, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was newly pregnant. Inspired by a viral photo, she shares her story.
When this picture of a new mother breastfeeding her baby recently went viral, more than a few tears were shed over the intense, raw emotion. We're simply not used to seeing a mastectomy scar and bald head in the same frame as a newborn; pregnant women aren't supposed to get breast cancer, right?
But about one in every 3,000 pregnant women is diagnosed with breast cancer, making it the most common type of cancer found during pregnancy, breastfeeding, or within the first year of delivery, according to the American Cancer Society.
Lauren Smoke, a 34-year-old teacher from Chicago, was the one in 3,000. Smoke was six weeks pregnant when she found her lump; she got the phone call confirming it was malignant just two hours after she and her husband saw their baby on the ultrasound screen for the first time. Mom and baby are doing well now, but the months since her diagnosis have been physically grueling and emotionally devastating. Despite having a seven-week-old (healthy!) baby boy at home, and with radiation beginning just a few days later, this proud warrior mama took the time to chat with Fit Pregnancy.
FP: How did you find your lump?
LS: When I was six weeks pregnant, my boobs had gotten bigger and were a little sore, so I was massaging them in bed one night, feeling around, and I felt a lump in my left breast. I had a sinking feeling right away. I had Ian feel it too to make sure [something was there.] The next morning, I called Planned Parenthood and made an appointment—I didn't have health insurance until the summer of 2014, so that's where I was used to going for birth control and yearly exams. Plus, I didn't have my OB appointment until I was eight weeks pregnant. Planned Parenthood said these things were usually nothing, probably milk duct-related, but they referred me to Northwestern [Memorial Hospital], who said same thing: "Probably nothing to worry about, but let's do a biopsy just in case." The biopsy was scheduled for March 13. By that point, I was feeling optimistic—everyone had been telling me not to worry. I thought, This is crazy. I can't have cancer. I do all the things you're supposed to do: I don't smoke, I'm a vegetarian. I was 33, in the best shape of my life thanks to yoga, running, and my job [as an early childhood educator] is high energy and kept me super active. I was eating healthier than ever before because of the pregnancy. I was a young, healthy happy person.
FP: Tell us about March 14.
LS: I was 8 weeks, 3 days along, and [my husband] Ian and I were at the OB for our first ultrasound to see the tiny little baby. We were really happy, excited. We could see the head and body, the heartbeat. It was the size of a raspberry. I was on my way back to work when the doctor called, and as soon as I answered the phone, I could tell from her voice that it wasn't good news. I pulled over. She said the cells were abnormal, and the next thing she said was, 'It is breast cancer.' She told me to schedule an appointment with a surgeon. I remember asking if it could affect my pregnancy and she said yes, it could. I started sobbing as soon as I said those words out loud. I was basically scream-crying the whole way home.
FP: What did the surgeon say?
LS: We met with her a few days later, and it felt a lot better to have a plan. She told us I was Stage 2a, and that the cells looked aggressive and were growing fast. Since I was in my first trimester, it was too early to try chemo—you have to wait until the placenta is fully formed, so it can to filter the bad stuff out—so we decided to start with surgery. My lumpectomy was set for March 27, when I would be 10 weeks pregnant. The big risk was miscarriage from the general anesthesia, but it went well and [they discovered that] the cancer hadn't spread. Once I was safely in the second trimester, we started chemo.
FP: Was there ever a conversation about whether you would continue with the pregnancy?
LS: I didn't think it was possible, but my breast surgeon never brought it up. Ian and I decided that if, at any point, my life was at stake, we'd have that conversation. But I started Googling around and found success stories online. Studies that follow babies [who were in utero during chemo] into adulthood find no mental and physical effects. I also connected with other women in my position—when I first saw that photo [of the cancer survivor nursing her newborn] on Facebook, I posted a comment about [my situation] and got 3,000 likes, and a woman from a Facebook group of women who were pregnant with cancer contacted me, so I joined that.
FP: How did you feel throughout your pregnancy?
LS: You hear chemo and you picture yourself in bed the whole time, throwing up. But I took a week off from work when I first started chemo, and every day, I woke up feeling normal. So I went back to work, although at 30 hours a week instead of 40. I never felt nauseous, never threw up even once. I did lose my hair after the first round; that was really tough. And I was a little fatigued and couldn't run anymore. But I did a lot of prenatal yoga, took our dogs Logan and Julia on walks every day, and I followed Fit Pregnancy on Facebook and Instagram; I read every single article!
FP: How did that viral photo impact you?
LS: When I first saw that picture, I still had hope that I might be able to breastfeed. I cried, mostly out of empathy. The look on her face, the emotions conveyed in her face. I saw myself in her, making it that far, having him on the outside, just being able to hold him. My doc said maybe I'd be able to nurse a week—the plan was to quit chemo and start radiation a week later, so I'd have one week to nurse. But he wound up coming five weeks early, and I couldn't nurse [because of the timing with my treatment and his arrival.] Nothing was wrong with him—he didn't even need to go to the NICU. He was 4 lbs 13 oz and 17.5" long. He was born on September 15, one day after my birthday.
FP: You named him Nico. Doe his name represent anything special?
LS: My husband likes the band Blind Melon—yes, the ones who sing No Rain—and one of their albums is titled "Nico." It comes from the word Nicodemus, which means victory of the people. Nico means victory.
FP: And you have an elephant-themed nursery, yes?
LS: Ian and I are both into yoga and Ganesha the elephant god represents overcoming obstacles: If something is in an elephant's way, they don't make a big fuss about it or go around it, they just keep going. That's what we did—we stayed on track, kept on going. Plus elephants are cute.
Since we spoke to Smoke, she finished her radiation. Baby Nico is doing well. Lauren has been sharing her yoga practice with him lately, doing mommy and baby yoga (a class she used to teach for new moms). In general, she says, "Not much is going on, really...which is a good thing."