I Was Diagnosed With Metastatic Breast Cancer While 20 Weeks Pregnant

Courtesy of Lanear Snell
Courtesy of Lanear Snell

I was in a hotel room in Reno when I found my first lump. I've always been a small-chested girl. So when I woke up one morning with breast pain and a lump in my right breast, I noticed. I got up from my hotel bed and went straight to the bathroom to check things out. It was like nothing I'd felt before. I immediately told my husband and he suggested I get it checked out when I got home from my work trip. At the time, I was working as a flight attendant.

The week I got home, I went to see my primary care doctor in McDonough, GA. I was told that the lump looked peculiar and that they wanted to send me elsewhere for a mammogram. It was during intake that I was asked to do a pregnancy test (as pregnancy and breastfeeding can make breast tissue denser, which interferes with a mammogram) — the pregnancy test came back positive. So they decided to do an ultrasound instead. I was surprised by the news — this was in November 2016 and I'd given birth to a son a year prior, in September — but I didn't even have time to process the pregnancy at the time. I was so focused on the potential cancer diagnosis lingering and eager to get the ultrasound results.

Nothing alarming showed up on the ultrasound. In fact, I was told that everything was fine and it was likely linked to breastfeeding and hormone changes [from the new pregnancy]. By December 2016, I was still feeling the same pain though. They did a second ultrasound, and again, no red flags. So I just went on thinking, "OK, everything is fine." But as the symptoms lingered I grew more concerned. In January 2017, I went to see my ob-gyn for a routine checkup and asked her to look at the lump. She agreed that it felt abnormal and referred me to a breast specialist.

I ended up getting a biopsy done on Valentine's Day 2017. The next day was a weekday; I'd transitioned to the airline's corporate department, and I was working in the office when I received a phone call. When I picked up the phone, a nurse, Jennifer, spoke to me. "Hi Mrs. Snell, I'm calling with your results from your biopsy. I wanted to let you know that it is cancer," I remember her telling me. She told me I'd need to come back into the office ASAP.

I'd never heard of a pregnant woman doing chemotherapy before. I knew I was resilient. But I didn't know about the little baby in my belly.

At that moment, all the air in my body just left. I walked outside in the middle of February. I didn't even think to grab a jacket. I just needed the fresh air. I remember walking around in the parking lot, trying to make sense of what I was being told, trying to bring myself back into my body. Everything after moved very quickly. All of a sudden I had a whole team of doctors: an OB, an oncologist, a surgeon, a specialist for the baby. Fortunately, I felt really supported and seen through it all.

My healthcare team all came together and talked amongst themselves to develop a treatment plan that was as seamless as possible. Of course I had also become an honorary medical doctor overnight — googling everything. I had tons of questions, especially about the safety of the baby. I'd never heard of a pregnant woman doing chemotherapy before. I knew I was resilient. But I didn't know about the little baby in my belly. I asked if we could start treatment after the baby was born, but my care team feared that my cells were too aggressive. They assured me that starting chemo in the second trimester then stopping treatment in the third was the safest thing for the baby.

So I had four cycles of chemotherapy administered intravenously every three weeks during my second trimester. My mom and aunt went to every single appointment with me. Of course, I had my bad days experiencing side effects of both pregnancy and chemo (fatigue, hair loss, weight loss). But for the most part, I made it a point to stay positive and would accept nothing less from the people around me.

I would tell my friends and family, "No, I'm not OK. I wake up in the morning, I take a shower, and I fall apart. However, the moment I step outside of the shower, my day has to go on." I needed them to go on as normal, too, because I didn't want my baby to feel any sort of stress or uncertainty — not from me or anyone else around me. Fortunately, they all got the memo.

Unfortunately, at 20 weeks pregnant, I learned that the original tumor had shrunk but the cancer had metastasized to my spine (mid and lower back). Still, I held on to hope. For some reason, I'd convinced myself that the test was wrong and that the bone scans they were unable to do while I was pregnant would show something different. In my third trimester, I focused on healing and preparing my body for delivery, trying to gain weight and eating enough for me and the baby (something I'd been struggling to do while undergoing chemo).

In July 2017, I delivered my daughter via C-section. They removed my fallopian tubes that same day [to prevent another pregnancy]. I didn't want to have another baby, and my cancer was hormone-receptor- and estrogen-receptor-positive cancer [meaning it uses hormones like estrogen and progesterone to grow; both increase dramatically in the body during pregnancy]. I remember feeling a sense of relief when it was all over. I had a healthy baby girl, 10 little fingers, 10 little toes. She was awesome. When we took her home from the hospital, I felt like I had reached the finish line. I delivered this healthy baby, and now I could fall apart.

But I couldn't. A few weeks later, I went in for some scans and learned that the cancer had spread to my jaw, sternum, spine, and tailbone. They weren't active, but they were present. So I was placed on oral chemotherapy medication and will continue to be on maintenance drugs for the foreseeable future. My journey with metastatic cancer is ongoing, and will be for the rest of my life, but it's taught me a lot about myself, including how strong I am.

If there's one piece of advice I'd give to others going through a metastatic cancer diagnosis, it's that you are still in control of your health. For me, that translated to the people I chose to surrounded myself with. I know that my emphasis on keeping my spirit high and the attitudes of those around me positive was crucial to my health outcome. I even found a support group for young women with cancer, Painted Pink, which I'm still involved in today.

In this next phase of my cancer journey, I'm transitioning into a supportive role, as my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. It's a mixture of emotions for me really. I'm surprised because she's older and I thought if she was going to get breast cancer that would have happened before me. I'm sad because I know the road that she's gonna have to go down. But also I feel a little validated — like my journey is not for naught. I went through this first. I did it. I know what to expect. I know the sadness that comes with it. Now, I can hold her hand because I've been here before.

— As told to Alexis Jones

Alexis Jones is the senior health editor at POPSUGAR. Her areas of expertise include women's health, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, diversity in wellness, and chronic conditions. Her other bylines can be found at Women's Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more. Alexis is currently the president of ASME Next, an organization for early-career print and digital journalists.