Pregnant with cancer: A Story of Survival and Resilience

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Shaio Zerba
  • 306th Intelligence Squadron
On April 16, 2007, I got a call no expecting mother would dream of receiving. "We got the results from your biopsy and it came back malignant." Did the doctor just say I had cancer?

I first discovered the lump during Christmas break. It was so small that it was barely distinguishable. In March, I performed another breast exam and detected the lump again, but this time it was noticeably larger. So, I decided to get the lump checked out.  Several days before my doctor's appointment, I discovered I was pregnant. Because of the pregnancy, the doctor performed an ultrasound rather than a mammogram. Since the ultrasound was inconclusive, the doctor recommended performing a biopsy that day for definitive results. 

The following Monday, I received the results--it was cancer. Within days of my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove the tumor. The final pathology report found the cancer to be stage 1, but high-grade and extremely aggressive. Unfortunately, cancers diagnosed in younger patients, I was thirty-two at the time, are generally faster growing, contributing to lower survival rates.

Given the rate of survival for my type of cancer, my doctors believed I had to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments immediately. Their plan was to start chemotherapy during the second trimester of the pregnancy consisting of six rounds of chemo with three week intervals, a total of 18 weeks. Then after I delivered the baby, resume another twelve weeks of chemo, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. While medical studies had proven this treatment regimen safe during pregnancy, I was still uneasy. After a lot of sleepless nights, my husband and I decided to trust the doctors.

My first chemotherapy session was one of the most difficult days of my life. During the pre-brief the nurse relayed a few of the side effects of chemo such as hair loss, nausea, and a reddish tint to my urine, tears, and sweat.  As briefed, my urine looked like red Kool-Aid poured into the toilet bowl and days later my hair began to fall out. I thought to myself, if chemo made my urine red and my head bald, what else was it doing to my body and the baby? Each time I went in for another chemo installment, I felt tormented.

It was a long, arduous 14 months from diagnosis to completion of treatment--involving cancer diagnosis, morning sickness, pregnancy discomfort, surgery, chemo, baldness, bed rest, labor, more chemo, and radiation. Despite all that we went through, we became proud parents of a healthy boy. Our son arrived five weeks early with all his fingers and toes.

The first year after treatment was a difficult transition to normalcy. Returning to the everyday humdrum of daily life felt like returning from a yearlong deployment. Everything felt trivial, trite or mundane. With time I began to feel more like myself, however it would take several years to finally process the trauma and verbalize my story to others.

It's been more than seven years since my diagnosis, and I have been cancer free. My son is a healthy, happy 1st grader who loves to ride his bike and learn about the American presidents.  My marriage is stronger than ever since my husband and I share the same battle scars. I am now a squadron commander with the ability to help Airman. I am grateful for all the good things in my life. I share my story because I believe resiliency, the ability to bounce back, not only comes from practice but also knowing that the human experience is not faced singularly.