Testimonial of Jessica Dagenais

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25 years old, pregnant and diagnosed with breast cancer

Testimonial of Jessica Dagenais

My name is Jessica, I’m going on 26 years old, I’m 30 weeks pregnant and I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

When I first started to question my health, I remember thinking to myself: this isn’t possible, I’m pregnant. There are a lot of hormonal changes that happen when you’re expecting, so my breasts changed, but that’s normal, I’m kind of immune. I was more tired, but again, this is a normal part of being pregnant, so it was hard to know how to recognize a real symptom.

I have always had one breast smaller than the other, but a few weeks ago I noticed a lump in that breast. Every day I would feel it and it wasn’t going away: it wasn’t really painful, but it was tender to the touch. During my pregnancy follow-up with my doctor, I told her about it, and she examined me. She then referred me to the designated reference centre for investigation (CRID) at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, and two weeks later, the hospital called me to do a breast ultrasound and biopsy.

They saw an abnormality in the breast and lymph nodes: I had three biopsies after that. A week later, on January 26, I found out I have breast cancer, more specifically stage 2B (I have a 3cm lump in my right breast, two affected lymph nodes, and I have HER2 positive cancer).

During the long week of waiting for results, I preferred to tell myself that it was related to my pregnancy. I had already had a bladder tumour two years ago, and I couldn’t believe I would also have breast cancer! Plus, everyone I talked to about it said it couldn’t be serious and that it was probably pregnancy-related: I must have a non-cancerous cyst, they said. I believed it.

I had an appointment scheduled at CRID, but my OB-GYN looked at my results and was so shocked, she wanted to tell me herself. She called me around 9 p.m. to tell me the news. Knowing that I’m a pretty anxious person, she was really reassuring. She told me that a team would be there for me and that I would be taken care of.

I was informed that I would have to do chemo in two stages: the first now, before giving birth, and the other afterwards (one treatment every three weeks for 12 weeks).

Since my baby’s organs are developed, it’s safe to start chemotherapy at this stage. If I had been diagnosed during my first trimester, however, I would have had to terminate my pregnancy, and that would have been very difficult for me as I had a hard time getting pregnant. I am still at risk of giving birth prematurely because I also have gestational diabetes. The team that is following me at the hospital is great: they monitor and supervise everything, and I trust that they will make the best decisions. Plus, I never wait for my appointments, the information is given to me very quickly and when I have questions, they get me help right away.

I am on a waiting list for a partial mastectomy if I respond well to chemotherapy. If it doesn’t work, I will need to have a full mastectomy. The surgery is scheduled for July and then I will have radiation five days a week for five weeks.

My family is no stranger to cancer. There’s a long history of it: lungs, uterus, rectum… but not breast. I’m the first.

I was never taught to do a breast observation. I knew, for instance, that during menstruation, changes in breast texture can occur and that this is normal, but I had never adopted a preventive attitude. No doctor had ever done a breast exam on me before I got pregnant… When I had one at the very beginning of my pregnancy, my doctor didn’t notice anything abnormal. I even remember her telling me that because I was young, it was unlikely that I had cancer. It’s possible I had the lump for a few weeks before I realized it. Since I didn’t do breast observations, I had no idea.

The diagnosis devastated my boyfriend because his mother has had breast cancer. Even though he’s there for me, he’s autistic and sometimes has a hard time dealing with his anxiety, so it’s hard to talk about it and get support from those around me. My father tries to stay positive and he listens to me because he has had cancer, so he understands. My mother is very anxious in life and feels helpless in this situation. I try not to talk to her about it too much so I don’t worry her. I feel a bit lonely.

I’ve had only one chemo treatment so far (on February 18). I had nausea, dizziness, a migraine, headaches and fatigue. My next one will be on March 11. I know that chemo and other treatments could put an end to my dream of having more children. My team has contacted the OVO clinic to have my eggs frozen: I’m waiting for more information.

Breastfeeding is also a loss that I’m mourning. I won’t be able to breastfeed my baby (because of chemo), and I’ve always wanted to. I was a photographer, and I shot breastfeeding sessions that made me want to do it. It’s also an additional expense to include in my budget: formula is expensive.

I have follow-ups with a psychiatrist specialized in pregnancy and another specialized in oncology. They’re there to help me cope. Two or three weeks ago, I was still feeling very negative, I had insomnia, I cried all the time. They had to prescribe me anti-depressants.

I’m expecting a baby girl in May, and that’s what I’m fighting for: the hope of being there for her. I am still very afraid, because if the treatment doesn’t work I’ll have to leave her without a mother. I’m also afraid I won’t be able to take care of her, because even though I used to be an early-childhood educator and I’ve been around children, it’s not like having a baby with you 24 hours a day. Also, because of the treatments after giving birth, I’m afraid that I won’t be present and well enough and won’t have enough energy. Despite all of this, it’s still the idea of being with her that helps me the most. I take my mind off things, I prepare her room, I put her clothes away. It’s going to be a true joy in my life.

A friend of mine died of breast cancer at the age of 30. She rarely shared what she was going through, but I know that she unfortunately found out about it too late. She always showed a lot of strength despite her suffering. I never thought that at 25 years old and pregnant, it could happen to me. I thought it was a type of cancer that didn’t affect young people. I realize now that it affects us too.

We had sex education classes in high school, and I think it would have been appropriate to teach us about the importance of knowing your breasts. Even my family doctor, who is a woman, never asked or suggested that I do breast observations. It seems to me that this should also be discussed by doctors. More awareness would probably help, and it would save lives. It’s pretty rare for a pregnant woman to undergo chemotherapy, and a lot of people don’t believe it when they hear that I’m sick. I hope that my story will help raise awareness and inform the public that chemo during pregnancy does exist, and so does breast cancer.