Courtney Bugler and her husband were planning on starting a family when their baby plans took an unexpected detour — Courtney was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Upon hearing the news, Courtney, who was then 29, was immediately concerned she wouldn’t be able to have the baby she was hoping for.
“Is this going to ruin our chances to have a baby?” was one of the first questions Courtney said she asked her doctors.
Luckily for her and her husband, Courtney had options.
Since Courtney, who was being treated at Northwestern University in Chicago, knew she wanted to eventually have a family, fertility experts were looped in to her treatment plans.
According to Dr. Ralph Kazer, the chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern University, if a doctor at NU has a cancer patient who wants to become pregnant, the fertility doctors are quickly brought on to her case. Then the doctors will work together to treat the woman.
“We make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” Kazer said.
Before undergoing a lumpectomy, Courtney was able to have eggs harvested and turned into embryos.
She then went through chemotherapy and radiation to treat her breast cancer, followed by hormone therapy. Courtney then took a break from her hormone treatments and waited for three months to get the tamoxifen out of her system before she tried to get pregnant.
Courtney — who eventually also had her ovaries removed — became impregnated with the frozen embryos she stored before her cancer treatments. She says she got pregnant right away, but eventually miscarried about nine weeks later. About six weeks after her miscarriage, Courtney repeated the process with the embryos and once again became pregnant.
About nine months later, Courtney had the title of a breast cancer survivor and the proud mother of an infant son.
Courtney, who said her pregnancy was actually fairly routine, said she knows several women who have also had babies after — and even during — breast cancer treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 out of every 3,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with breast cancer. But, a pregnancy doesn’t mean a patient can’t be treated for breast cancer. According to Kazer, in some instances, patients can receive certain types of chemotherapy when they are late in their pregnancy.
However, there are some risks involved to having a baby after or during breast cancer treatments.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is a link between estrogen levels and the growth of breast cancer cells. Because of this, many doctors advise their patients to wait at least two years after completing treatment before trying to get pregnant. This gives doctors a chance to find any early signs of a recurrence. Women who are currently undergoing hormone therapy are also advised to talk to their doctors before becoming pregnant. Some of the hormones could affect the growing baby.
Because of the concerns over estrogen levels, Courtney was concerned when she was told to take hormones during her pregnancy. However, she was assured by her doctors that if she still had her ovaries, the ovaries would have produced the hormones she was taking as supplements naturally anyways.
According to Kazer, for many women, pregnancy after or during breast cancer can come without huge risks.
Kazer said doctors are learning that women who have babies after breast cancer are not more likely to have recurrences, and that women who develop breast cancer during pregnancy do not have a worse prognosis.
Even the babies who are born to breast cancer patients are fairing well.
“Breast cancer itself is not a risk to the baby,” Kazer said.
For these reasons, Courtney thinks breast cancer patients need to be aware that getting pregnant might still be possible.
“You should at least be aware of what your options are,” she said.