I Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer After Having a Baby

Imagine having to juggle surgery and chemo while tending to the needs of a newborn. Melissa Thompson was a 32-year-old first-time mom when she found out she had breast cancer.

Mellissa Thompson was 32 years old when she had her first baby—and was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Here is her story.

Poppy, my daughter, was born in July 2015. I had a regular delivery in a hospital near my home in Connecticut, and I began breastfeeding right away. For the first few days, everything was good, except for the high fevers I started having. My hospital discharge papers instructed me to call my ob-gyn immediately if I experienced a fever over 100.4 degrees, so I finally went to her office after days of denial.

She diagnosed me with mastitis—an infection of the breast tissue often triggered by a plugged milk duct that causes swelling, tenderness, and redness, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS)—and put me on antibiotics. I continued to try to breastfeed, though it was painful. My high fevers persisted and breastfeeding became more difficult. I did another round of antibiotics, but when those proved to be ineffective, I was referred to a breast surgeon.

The surgeon did an ultrasound and attributed my symptoms yet again to mastitis. I was reassured throughout this process that everything was fine, and I had nothing to worry about. So I didn't panic when I went back a month later for a follow-up ultrasound and then a biopsy, which the radiologist said was a standard procedure.

Through this entire process, breast cancer didn't really cross my mind. While friends with cancer scares told stories of the anxiety-ridden time between getting the biopsy and receiving the results, I felt calm. I was a brand-new mom trying to manage life with a newborn baby, and breast cancer seemed like a non-issue—until it wasn't.

An Alarming Text From the Hospital

I had Poppy asleep in my arms when a notification from the hospital came through on my phone: Reminder, your oncology appointment is tomorrow at 9 a.m. I was in total shock. Until that moment, I did not have an oncologist.

I called the hospital, and when I explained the situation, the person on the other end of the phone gasped. They put me through to a doctor who said that the notification was "an oversight." They said, "I wanted to call you in [for an initial appointment] because I wanted you to be prepared. You're going to have a lot of appointments in the next few days."

They were right about that. A subsequent CT scan and an MRI showed what looked like a 3 cm malignant mass in my left breast. I had stage 3 breast cancer, but more specifically, I had pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC), which is breast cancer during pregnancy or in the first year after delivery. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it's relatively rare, striking approximately 1 in 3,000 pregnant women.

Egg Retrieval—Then Breast Removal Surgery

The size and proximity of the tumor to the breast skin meant a mastectomy was my only option. And even though I had no family history—which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have raised my risk for breast cancer—and later tested negative for the breast cancer gene mutations, and was told my risk of having cancer in my right breast was less than 1%, I opted for a double mastectomy.

Before that, however, I was referred to a fertility clinic, which was a harrowing experience—having a newborn while in an IVF office and being a cancer patient and in a state of shock. I was told I would likely need chemotherapy, which according to the ACS, can often lead to infertility. If I wanted more children in the future, egg freezing was my best option. I began the hormone injections, had my eggs retrieved and frozen 16 days later, and then the following Monday was scheduled for breast surgery.

Throughout the three weeks from diagnosis to my mastectomy, I was still a new mom, getting up at least every three hours to feed my baby. After my diagnosis, I stopped trying to breastfeed. It was physically painful, but I knew within weeks I would not have breasts at all, so mostly it was psychologically difficult. Luckily, Poppy took to formula and that lifted one worry off my mind—I knew Poppy would be fed and would be okay.

Recovery, Chemo, and a Baby To Care For

After my mastectomy, I came home from the hospital in pain, with limited mobility, and anxiously thinking about the pathology results (the 3 cm mass ended up being 7 cm). I also couldn't lift Poppy, who now weighed 14 pounds, for eight weeks. My mother stayed with us during that time to help. Poppy would be placed on my lap, and I could also snuggle with her in bed. But it was heartbreaking to hear Poppy cry and not be able to pick her up on my own. I had just become a mother, yet I needed my own mother's help.

Despite cancer, Poppy and I still spent a lot of time together. She slept a lot, and I did too. She was bald, and so was I. I wanted to take her to more Mommy & Me classes, but I didn't have the strength. The times I had to go back into the hospital were hard for us. I had reconstruction surgery, and I also went into isolation at one point because my immune system was so weak and I was susceptible to germs. According to the CDC, this decrease in white blood cells (white blood cells help fight off infection) is called neutropenia. While in isolation, FaceTime was how we connected.

When the pathology report came in, it indicated that I was at high risk for cancer recurrence. My medical team advised me that an aggressive chemotherapy regiment offered the best chance for long-term survival. I was thankful I had my eggs harvested, since following chemo, I faced hormone therapy that could effectively put me into menopause. According to the ACS, hormone therapy is often used following surgery (but sometimes before) to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. It's usually used for five years—longer if the chance of recurrence is higher.

The first year of Poppy's life brought the joy of new life, mixed with fears of mortality. I went through more body changes than I had experienced at any other time in my life that I could remember—from being relatively stable in weight and body composition during the previous decade to gaining almost 50 pounds during pregnancy. I had to surrender my eggs, my breasts, and for a time, my mobility, eventually losing the baby weight from being violently ill during chemo.

Becoming a Breast Cancer Advocate for Others

Once my treatment ended, I focused on cherishing my time being a mom to Poppy. Instead of simply hoping that she never had to worry about this disease, I did everything I could to make sure she didn't have to. That included lending my voice to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), a top breast cancer organization in the US—because research is the only way we're going to eradicate this disease.

I also advocated for and rewrote a bill requiring health insurance companies to cover the cost of fertility preservation treatments for women facing a cancer diagnosis. The bill, Melissa's Law, was passed unanimously in June 2017 in Connecticut. My IVF costs were so expensive, and I paid for them out of pocket because my infertility was a result of chemotherapy, not a pre-existing condition. I knew I wasn't the only one with this reality and wanted to do something to help other people going through this same type of situation.

I hope that my story encourages young people to be vigilant about their health, particularly during and, notably, after pregnancy.

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