Jennifer Murphy knows how lucky she is to be alive after surviving breast cancer. Even more incredible to the Floral Park, LI, resident is the fact that her 18-month-old daughter was ever born – and continues to thrive.
Surrounded by her team of doctors and supportive family, Ms. Murphy credits the compassionate care she received at at the health system’s for providing the guidance and support necessary to propel her through a terrible diagnosis during her first pregnancy to the “miraculous” delivery of a beautiful, healthy baby girl.
In recounting her medical journey over the past two years, Ms. Murphy said. “Two years ago, when I was 30, my mother and I were enjoying a girls’ trip to Italy,” she said. “That’s when I discovered a lump on my right breast. Since there was no family history of breast cancer, I decided to just finish out the trip and get checked out when I returned home.”
Upon returning home, Ms. Murphy learned that she was pregnant. During an appointment with her obstetrician/gynecologist at the eight-week mark, she brought her concerns about the lump to her midwife, who told her it was probably a case of clogged milk ducts. Yet Ms. Murphy wasn’t so sure. After noticing swelling in her lymph nodes, she asked for a sonogram. She knew something was wrong when the radiologist suggested a biopsy.
“A few days later, I got the phone call: it was stage 3, grade 3 breast cancer,” Ms. Murphy said. “And I was 16 weeks pregnant. At this point, the question was how to move forward.”
One in 1,000 women will battle cancer while pregnant in the United States, according to Richard Barakat, MD, physician-in-chief and director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
While others suggested she terminate the pregnancy, Ms. Murphy chose instead to find a medical team that would help her achieve the goal of motherhood while beating cancer. She found her way to Northwell’s Center for Cancer, Pregnancy and Reproduction, specifically Karen Kostroff, MD, chief of breast surgery, and medical oncologist Jane Carleton, MD.
“Breast cancer is always a challenging diagnosis,” said Dr. Carleton, “and even more so when a woman is pregnant. We were all so inspired by Jenn and her family. All of us worked together to treat Jenn’s cancer safely during her pregnancy. Here’s how I looked at it: Jenn’s job was to listen to her body, and my job was to listen to Jenn. And the end result of this is to see her here today with her beautiful baby girl. I think what we’ve all learned from this family is that they chose not to focus on things they couldn’t control. Instead, they focused on what they could control.”
After completing eight weeks of chemotherapy, Ms. Murphy delivered a healthy girl, Marlowe Donna Hope, five weeks earlier than expected in May 2018. (The baby was named Donna after Ms. Murphy’s mother and Hope because she gave her the faith to keep fighting when hope was running out.)
“Genetic test results confirmed that Jennifer was BRCA II positive, which suggests a higher risk for reoccurrence and new cancer growth,” said Dr. Kostroff. “For that reason, she made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy.”
Following surgery, Jennifer was declared cancer-free in September 2018, just five months after giving birth. Another incredible fact was that Ms. Murphy was able to breastfeed for the first five months of her daughter’s life, prior to the surgery.
“Most people don’t realize that it’s possible for women to go through chemo while breastfeeding,” said Dr. Carleton. “Our patients are carefully monitored, and it’s important for us to let new mothers know that this is a possibility.”
Dr. Barakat said about 35 women have been treated at the Center for Cancer, Pregnancy and Reproduction earlier this year. “Diagnosis and treatment of cancer in pregnant women can be very challenging because symptoms of cancer are often masked during pregnancy,” he said. “Having breast cancer is difficult enough for a woman; finding this out during what should be the happiest time of a couple’s life is even more challenging.”
As baby Marlowe raced around the room, Ms. Murphy, who serves as a vocal advocate for women fighting breast cancer, added words of encouragement to those of her doctors. Thanking her doctors for offering their “shoulders to cry on,” she said, “I never thought my first pregnancy would be filled with such happiness and such fear. After the initial phone call, I wasn’t sure if my daughter and I would have a future. I encourage other women going through this to listen to your bodies.”
For more information about Northwell Health’s Center for Cancer, Pregnancy and Reproduction, visit: https://www.northwell.edu/cancer-institute/center-cancer-pregnancy-reproduction.