Specialized chemo treatment helps pregnant Ottawa woman
Published Thursday, January 8, 2015 5:46PM EST Last Updated Thursday, January 8, 2015 7:01PM EST
It should be the happiest time of her life. But an Ottawa mother, pregnant with her third baby, is facing the challenge of her life. Jillian O’Connor has been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. And now, the race is on to help both her and her baby. O'Connor is counting down the days when she'll be able to hold her newborn baby. She will be induced on February 1st after an emotional pregnancy that started with a lump in her breast when she was 16 weeks pregnant. She found it while she was breastfeeding her one-year-old son. The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter.
‘Like any breastfeeding mom, I thought it was a blocked milk duct,’ O’Connor explains.
She decided to visit her doctor, who examined her and sent her on for an ultrasound and mammogram. The diagnosis was stage 2 cancer, which was then upgraded when it was discovered her liver was enlarged as well.
‘They found out it had metastasized to my liver so I guess I have breast cancer with metastatic disease.
O’Connor, who is a nurse in the operating room at the Queensway-Carleton Hospital knew how dire that diagnosis was. She was sent to the Cancer Centre at The Ottawa Hospital where she met with medical oncologist and cancer researcher Dr. Mark Clemons.
‘Jillian is facing not only the challenge of going through cancer treatment while pregnant,’ says Dr. Clemons, ‘but she knows her disease is not curable and once baby born, we will change her treatment to give her the best chance of long and fulfilling life.’
In the past, women with aggressive cancers like Jillian's may have been advised to terminate the pregnancy to allow them to undergo cancer treatment. Dr. Mark Clemons had a plan to treat both mom and baby.
‘If I could find the right treatment, I could not only bring breast cancer under control and allow the baby to grow normally despite the chemotherapy and she should deliver normal baby, hopefully, in the next few.’
After a total mastectomy, Jillian began chemo treatments with a type of chemotherapy that does not cross the placenta. The baby is doing well.
‘They thought with the chemo treatments that maybe the side effects would be low birth weight,’ says Jillian, ‘but it's exceeding all expectations , it's so doing wonderfully.’
Breast cancer is rare during pregnancy. It is found in about one in 3-thousand pregnant women. But those numbers are likely to rise as more women delay their pregnancy. The risk of breast cancer goes up the older women get. Dr. Clemons treats about 2 pregnant women a year in Ottawa who have breast cancer. Each case is different, of course, but the aim is to deliver a healthy baby so that mom can then get the treatment she needs. While Jillian's cancer is not curable Dr. Clemons says it is treatable.
‘The hope is that we are giving her the best treatment in the world to give her the best chance of not only seeing the baby born but watching this baby grow up,’ explains Dr. Clemons.
And clearly, that is Jillian's hope as well.
‘I want to play with my kids and give them a new brother or sister and live life and be a mom.’
Jillian wanted to tell her story to shine a spotlight on the research being done in Ottawa. Dr. Clemons says the Ottawa Hospital is now an international hub for expertise in managing patients like Jillian. So that more women, around the world, may live to see their babies grow.