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Pregnant With Cancer: One Woman's Journey

Mary Harris was relieved when Stella was born with a mop of thick black hair, as if she had been protected from the chemo somehow.

After years of debating whether to have a second child, my husband, Mark, and I decided to give it a try. Two weeks later, we found a lump. I was 35.

When the diagnosis of breast cancer was made, we learned how treatment could affect fertility; chemo could jump-start menopause. Doctors wouldn't feel comfortable letting us try to get pregnant until I'd completed five years of hormone therapy. Even adoption agencies would want to see that I'd achieved five years of post-cancer survival. We quietly gave up on the idea of a sibling for our son, Leo, who was 5.

Then the day before my scheduled lumpectomy, my oncology nurse called with stunning news — routine bloodwork had uncovered that I was pregnant. (You can listen to our audio diary above.)

October 25, 2013: This is the very first ultrasound I have of the baby we now call Stella. It was taken a few days after surgery. I'd had two ultrasounds already, but my obstetrician hadn't let me see any images until this one — she didn't want me to get too attached to the idea of a baby until I made it out of the lumpectomy OK. We were still waiting to find out how aggressive the tumor was and whether it had spread. My doctors made me promise to revisit the idea of terminating the pregnancy if the cancer was worse than they expected.

February 20, 2014: Before chemo, we went away for a vacation with our son, Leo. We were sitting on the beach when I told him I was about to start therapy.

"I have to take strong medication, and one of the side effects – when you take this medication – is that your hair falls out," I said.

"Nooooooo!" he yelled.

I was shocked he reacted so strongly – until I realized he thought I was telling him his hair was going to fall out. When I explained that he would get to keep his hair, he was hugely relieved.

March 19, 2014: Everyone says "you just know" when you have to shave your head. You get sick of finding hair in the shower and on your pillow. My hair had been long for more than 20 years, and it was so thick that it took a long while for me to reach that point. But three weeks after my first round of chemotherapy, I stopped brushing and washing it, just to keep it attached a day or two longer. I actually took the day off work because I was afraid of my hair falling out in the office. That's how I knew — it was time to let go.

April 29, 2014: My son had a hard time accepting the hair loss. He could be goofy about it — asking to show off my bald head to his friends — but then he brought home this journal entry from school and I realized his feelings were more mixed.

May 1, 2014: On my last day of chemo, we weren't sure what to do, so we went to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to celebrate. But it felt like we had so many hurdles still ahead of us — I had to get my blood counts up, give birth, then get radiation. And we were hoping the baby was healthy.

May 30, 2014: Stella was born incredibly quickly; I spent just four hours in labor. When the doctor handed her to me, it was a huge relief to see that she had even more hair than I did, and her birth weight was normal, at 7 lbs. 5 oz. No one knows what her exposure to the chemo really was, but her mop of black hair seemed like proof that she was protected, somehow. My doctors have this picture pinned up in their office. "This is really somebody who needed to come into the world," my surgeon told me later. "We're going to expect great things from her."

January 11, 2015: Now we're a family of four. We're adjusting to the usual two-career, two-kid juggle.

But every day I think: "Is Stella normal? Is she hitting her milestones?"

There's currently no protocol for following children who went through chemo in utero. The big data sets seem to show that there isn't a measurable impact of the treatment, but there are some findings that show potential for cardiac damage and impact on IQ; stuff we wouldn't see for years.

I'll probably watch Stella for signs of side effects for the rest of her life.

Our series is produced with member station WNYC, and with WETA, whose documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies will air on PBS in March.

Copyright 2015 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

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