Alberta mother fighting aggressive cancer while pregnant

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WATCH ABOVE: An Edmonton mother who is 27 weeks pregnant is facing an aggressive treatment plan for her cancer. As Su-Ling Goh reports, the breast tumour is a type that requires potent chemotherapy. – Mar 11, 2021

An Edmonton woman is facing a frightening diagnosis during her second pregnancy: an aggressive form of breast cancer. But her doctors have come up with an unusual treatment plan to protect both mom and baby.

It started with Angela Schuurman noticing pain and a hard spot in her right breast. Worried it might be a milk duct infection, the 35-year-old mentioned it to her obstetrician-gynecologist.

After a mammogram and biopsy, she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer on Feb. 23. Schuurman was 24 weeks pregnant at the time, and feared she might be forced to deliver the baby right away. A pregnancy is considered full term at 39 weeks.

“It was really scary… you start assuming the worst,” Schuurman told Global News.

Her surgeon, Dr. Mike Chatenay, has only seen three pregnant breast cancer patients during his 22-year career.

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“Under normal circumstances, we’d deal with the breast cancer. But with (Schuurman’s) case, we also had to consider her baby’s health as well,” said Chatenay, a general surgeon at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

Chatenay said chemotherapy is normally safe for both the mother and unborn child during the second trimester.

“Unfortunately, in (Schuurman’s) case, because she has a protein on the cells of her tumour called HER2, chemotherapy for that is not safe to give during pregnancy,” he said.

READ MORE: Pregnancy after breast cancer is safe, Canadian study suggests 

A team of breast cancer surgeons, oncologists and radiologists decided the best plan is to start with a mastectomy. Schuurman will have her right breast and lymph nodes removed on March 15.

Then she will continue the pregnancy until May  –one month before her due date — when her baby girl will be delivered by C-section. Chemotherapy will begin soon after.

“So for the next couple months, I’m just going to recover from the mastectomy and focus on growing the baby and help my husband and our family get really prepared, because they’re going to have to take the brunt of it,” said Schuurman.

She predicts the most difficult part will be enduring chemotherapy while her husband Steven looks after the newborn and their two-year-old daughter Brenna.

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“I still feel guilty that I won’t be there for those first critical moments, but I just have to make that sacrifice for now to make sure I’m here down the road for them,” said Schuurman.

“The hardest time for me is when I’m tucking my daughter in at night and we have snuggles and stuff, and I just think, ‘What if I’m not here to do this down the road?’ That’s when it gets the toughest.”

Schuurman hopes her story will remind others to pay attention to changes in their body, and get checked by a doctor.

Chatenay also pointed out many have been avoiding cancer screening during the pandemic, resulting in later-stage diagnoses.

Friends have started an online fundraiser for the family.

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