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Pregnant with breast cancer: 'I couldn't wrap my head around it'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Khim Owens-Baggett found out she was pregnant right after being diagnosed with breast cancer. (Photo: Kindled Photography)

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Yahoo Lifestyle will be publishing first-person accounts of those who have been affected by the disease, which will be responsible for the deaths of an estimated 40,920 women (and nearly 500 men) this year. All women have about a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of developing some form of the breast cancer. Awareness, screenings, and early detection can save lives. 

The following is the personal story of Khim Owens-Baggett, as told to Beth Greenfield. Owens-Baggett, a 37-year-old mother of three, lives in St. Augustine, Fla., where she’s the operations manager for a health and wellness spa center. She went through breast cancer treatment while pregnant with her third child, who is now just over a year old.

I found a lump myself in the shower one day, in 2016. I think I was shaving my armpit. It was right where my new underwire bra stopped, so I just figured it was an irritation from that. I went in and told my ob-gyn about it, and she said, “Let’s go ahead and do the mammogram.” They found invasive ductal carcinoma, estrogen-positive.

The treatment plan was really simple — a lumpectomy and then [estrogen-blocking drug] tamoxifen for however many years, so no chemo, no radiation. I thought I was getting off easy. But when it came time to look at the pathology results after the lumpectomy, the doctor said it was completely different from what they had seen on the imaging, and that I might want to consider a mastectomy, and that we should start the tamoxifen right away, and that I’d need birth control because you can’t get pregnant on the drug.

I went to my ob-gyn again for birth control, and we did a pregnancy test. She was like, “Um yeah, you’re pregnant, honey.”

I was not quite two weeks pregnant when I had the lumpectomy, and they missed it.

When I got the diagnosis for cancer I was like, “This is 2016, there’s lots of trials and stuff out here, it’s going to be fine, I’m going to kick butt.” When they were like, “’You’re pregnant,’ that’s when I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was like, for real? I was not familiar with people having cancer and being pregnant — like, was that something that was done? Are they going to tell me to terminate? Which they did. My ob-gyn said, “Your oncology team will tell you to terminate,” and she wrote the [abortion] prescription. I just didn’t fill it.

I found another doctor, who was supportive of my keeping the baby, saying, “This is your decision, and we’ll do everything possible to make sure you’re both safe and healthy.”

Pregnant Khim Owens-Baggett with her husband and two eldest children. (Photo: Kindled Photography)

I just wanted some kind of sign that everything was going to be OK. And when I heard that heartbeat on the monitor at the ob-gyn’s office, I thought: Maybe this is my sign that I asked for. That’s when I went home and researched and found the organization Hope for Two, which has been following [pregnant] women with cancer for the last 20 years or so. And I decided I would keep the baby — unless they said, “Neither of you are going to make it.”

Turns out they didn’t get everything out of my right breast with the lumpectomy. I suggested a mastectomy — a double, the left as prevention — because you can do that while you’re pregnant. I did that when I was solidly into the first trimester, and that was really hard. I breastfed my first two children, who were 7 and 3 at this time. But then I was like, well, I don’t have to breastfeed this one, and I don’t have to even worry about being mom-shamed for it!

But then after [my daughter was born and] they weighed her and laid her on my chest I felt, like, “Ugh. This is different.” She was rooting right away and there was nothing there. It was kind of sad, even though I had already done it twice [with my older children]. Of course, at the hospital, every time the nurses came around, they’d ask, “Breastfeeding or formula?” and I was like, “I don’t have breasts! Stop asking me!”

After the mastectomy, they found a suspicious lymph node and suggested going ahead with chemo and then radiation. I started chemo — there’s only one regimen you can do when you’re pregnant, doxorubicin — with four infusions every three weeks.

My husband and I didn’t talk a whole lot about it all. It was more like, “OK, I have an appointment today…” When we told my kids that I was getting the mastectomy, my 7-year-old handled it pretty well, and for my 3-year-old, it was way over her head. We talked about me losing my hair, and they were so sweet when I finally shaved my head. My daughter said I was still a beautiful princess. They were very uplifting and encouraging. I did my best to try to continue doing normal things to the best of my ability.

That [pregnancy photo, above] was actually a week before I was induced. I was about to pop for real. Some of my co-workers asked if I was going to do a maternity shoot, and I said, “I don’t think so… That’s going to be a really awkward maternity picture.” Then they paid for me to have a family photo session. The photographer said, “I don’t know how you feel about a photo with full-on exposed scars and your belly…” and I was like, “Nope.”

But then she sent me a few examples of women who had taken the photos, with their scars. I just felt how empowered those pictures made me feel, and I felt like it was such a rare occurrence to be pregnant and have cancer, because you don’t hear about it all the time. And I knew that’s all I wanted — to find others who were going through or had gone through what I was going through — so I thought, you know what? I’m going to do this, because there’s probably somebody out there in the same situation who that picture could help. And she did such a beautiful job.

I just did [breast] reconstruction in May. I opted to do the “DIEP flap,” where they sort of cut out your midsection and cinch it back together, so I have a scar from hip to hip. They were like, “This is your chance to keep the baby pooch after you have the baby!” [Laughs] Then they use that skin and your belly fat to make into breast mounds. I call them my “Franken-boobs.” There are some days when I think it’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and other days when I think it’s so much nicer than having to put on a prosthesis, because living in Florida we obviously go to the beach, and I didn’t want to do extra shopping for swimsuits that require the extra pockets and that kind of jazz.

The recovery actually wasn’t too bad, but you have about six weeks where you can’t lift anything or put your arms over your head. Sleeping was miserable, and I couldn’t pick up the baby, so that was rough.

My biggest message to others is: Be your own advocate. Do your research. Find out what’s being done for your cancer, check lots of hospitals, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion, and find a support group. If you’re under 40 with cancer, they have groups for that. If you’re pregnant with cancer, they have groups for that.

I know what a difference it made to me to have spoken with someone who had gone through the exact same thing I was getting ready to go through and was fine —  and I got to hear the baby in the background as she was telling me about her experience. It gave me a lot of hope and encouraged me on the hard days. I thought: OK, this stinks right now. But when all is said and done, everything’s going to be fine. And I’m going to have a happy, healthy baby to celebrate.

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