Karey was diagnosed with breast cancer when her first baby, a girl, was just 7 months old. In this installment of The Breastfeeding Chronicles, the 31-year-old stay-at-home mom talks about what it was like to be treated for breast cancer right after having a baby, and how she managed to nurse her second child, now 10-months-old, with one breast.
I had just finished pumping for my daughter when I discovered a lump. I'd had major supply issues -- at one point, I was seeing a lactation consultant every week -- but because there wasn't enough milk, my daughter basically refused to breastfeed. Neither of us enjoyed it -- she screamed every time I put her to the breast. So ultimately, I just pumped for her, and she nursed, maybe, once a night. We also supplemented with formula.
We just assumed the lump was a clogged milk duct, so I went in to have it drained, but they discovered it was actually solid. At that point, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. I was never properly staged, but it was very large and fast-growing.
My first thought was basically, "My husband and I are not done having babies yet!" But there was basically a 50-50 chance that chemo would send me into menopause. So the first thing we did was fertility preservation. I went through IVF without the actual implementation -- they harvested my eggs and my husband and I created embryos. It all went very fast -- I was diagnosed February 23 and I started chemo on March 23. They managed to squeeze in fertility preservation within that one cycle. I was very lucky in that sense.
I did chemo every other week over about four months. My doctors and I had discussed the possibility of just a lumpectomy [in which only a part of the breast is removed], but I had an MRI done, and there was still some cancer left. At that point, it wasn't up for discussion. I was having a mastectomy.
Because of where the cancer was located, and because it was only in one breast (and had responded so well to chemo), I had a single mastectomy. It was skin- and nipple-sparing, so they basically just removed the internal breast tissue. They watched and tested everything, but at that point, I was declared cancer free. "No evidence of disease," they say.
A Miraculous 'Oops'
After I finished recovering from surgery, I had radiation, which was about a month long. It ended a week before I turned 30. At that point, I had just barely gotten my period back, but my cycle hadn't regulated itself. My doctors wanted me to wait two years to get pregnant again, but we failed to use contraception one night and discovered in February that lo and behold, I was pregnant! It was a big "oops." A miraculous one, but an "oops" all the same.
I felt scared, happy and a little bit guilty. I'm a good student [laughs] so to disobey doctor's orders ... I kind of thought, "They're going to be mad at me! I'm going to be in trouble!" But I also knew that there was no inherent health risk for me to be pregnant because of the type of cancer I had. We didn't actually know what my body was going to do, and if it was going to be able to carry a baby at that point -- it had just been through this huge trauma. I also thought, "Oh my gosh, I could still have radiation poisoning!" But I saw my oncologist, and my OB who immediately got on the phone with a specialist, and they said they weren't concerned at all -- the only concern they would have had was for chemo, and I'd done that so long ago.
There's also a lot of talk about mother's intuition, and somehow, I just knew the pregnancy was going to result in a healthy baby. It was a relatively easy pregnancy. I had a vaginal birth ... everything just went pretty great!
Throughout the whole pregnancy, I thought about breastfeeding. I wanted to know what I could do to prepare. I knew women have two breasts, and I personally knew a few women who -- although they had two functioning breasts -- had children who favored one side, so they exclusively breastfed on that one side. So, I knew it was possible.
What we didn't know going in was if I was going to have supply issues again. Ultimately, we guessed that the cancer was probably why I'd had such problems the first time -- my body probably couldn't try and fight the cancer, have the cancer growing and produce milk at the same time.
But I was very nervous. I took the fact that I couldn't breastfeed my daughter as a huge failure. All I'd been hearing everywhere was, "Breastfeeding's natural; your body's meant to do it!" And I just thought, "Well, my body failed me. And it failed my daughter."
On top of that, my body failed me again by giving me cancer. So it was almost like, if I could breastfeed my son, it'd mean I'd conquered cancer.
My son latched right away -- I had some pretty serious cracking and I got to the point, about two weeks in, where I was in toe-curling pain -- but because I was so determined, and I was just going to suck it up. He was Going. To. Breastfeed [laughs].
When I was going through chemo, radiation and surgery my philosophy was, "I'm not going to suffer. If there's a pill I can take that's going to help me feel better, and get through this, I'm going to take it." I had no problem taking pain meds. But with breastfeeding, obviously, you're very limited with what you can take or do to overcome the initial pains. So it was a lot more of a mental game for me.
It was hard and painful for about three weeks. But it really has been a breeze since then.
The breast that underwent the mastectomy does not produce milk. There was some residual breast tissue, so I did experience some breast changes throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. That was hard, and I definitely had some panicked moments of, "Oh my god, what's happening?! Do I need to go see my oncologist? Is this cancer?" But when I went in and saw the doctors, they said it was fine.
Because I got pregnant so fast after finishing treatment, I didn't actually finish reconstruction. So I only had what's called an "expander" on my mastectomy side, which basically is like a rock. It's not shaped well and it's not placed great, because its entire purpose is to stretch out skin and muscle. So from a vanity perspective, it's horrendous [laughs]. I have one big, breastfeeding, melon-sized breast, and a big huge rock on the other side.
I'm still breastfeeding my son -- he's 10 months. I'm aiming for a year. My doctors would like for me to have a scan again, and I haven't been able to have one since finishing treatment. They're not rushing me, but they are ready. Plus, in the course of chasing after a toddler and a 10-month-old, my expander popped, so now I'm really a mess [laughs]. I'd like to finish up the reconstruction.
But if it's really emotionally traumatic for either of us, I'm not going to push it either.
The connection of breastfeeding has been amazing. He wants me, he wants to be close to me, he wants to gaze into my eyes [laughs]. I didn't really get that with my daughter that much, so it's been really sweet to have that close relationship.
But while I think it's so important, I think society sometimes guilt-trips women about it, and the support's still not there. We all just do what we can do!
Karey's two children earlier this summer.
This account has been edited and condensed.
In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7), HuffPost Parents participated in "I Support You," an initiative to collect photos and messages from mothers to each other that say we might lead different lives but we share wanting the best for our children. Find out more here.