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I found out that I was pregnant and had breast cancer on the same day

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Coral Wells and her husband, Michael, had almost given up hope of having a baby when they found out she was pregnant.

That same day, they also found out she had breast cancer.

It was February 2007 and Mrs Wells had just turned 37.

She found the lump in her breast herself, as it had become visible over a two-month period.

She had a biopsy and was sent to talk with a surgeon.

“The surgeon said the biopsy they had done was leaning towards a form of breast cancer,” said Mrs Wells. “Then I said, ‘I am going to throw a wrench in the works when I tell you I am six weeks pregnant.’”

The surgeon said he hadn’t heard of a previous case like that in Bermuda.

Mrs Wells was sent to Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts for a second opinion. There it was confirmed that she had breast cancer.

She was given two sets of doctors, one to represent her from the pregnancy side, and one side to look after the cancer. Both sides worked together. They offered a range of options for the Wells family. The first was to terminate the pregnancy. This would allow doctors to be more aggressive in their cancer treatment. The downside to this was that the chemotherapy could leave her infertile.

The doctors said they could freeze some of her ovaries and try in vitro fertilisation after her chemo treatment was over, but there was no guarantee it would work. The Wells refused to have an abortion.

“The doctors in Boston said they saw this situation frequently,” Mrs Wells said. “They had dealt with many cases before. They said if we decided to keep the baby, they wouldn’t do any cancer treatment at all in the first trimester. This would allow the baby’s major organs to develop. They would do the mastectomy first. They would do a test to make sure it hadn’t gone through the lymph nodes. Then they would do four rounds of chemo before I had the baby. After we delivered I would do another four rounds of chemo. If I kept the baby they would do chemo every three weeks rather than every two, to allow me to keep my strength up to carry the baby. The chemo doesn’t go through the placenta.”

Boston doctors found that the tumour measured three centimetres by three centimetres, which was quite large. Doctors were surprised she hadn’t had any other symptoms. Further tests discovered the cancer hadn’t reached her lymph nodes. Once that happens it can spread to other parts of the body.

Back in Bermuda she was sent to talk with an oncologist, who had dealt with other similar cases. However, she did not feel comfortable with him. One of the first things the oncologist did was pull up statistics about the death rate from breast cancer.

“He is no longer on the Island,” said Mrs Wells. “He had a very poor bedside manner. Someone else going to him might have decided to abort based on what he said. Luckily, I had talked with people overseas and done my own research online. I made it very clear I was not going to be treated by him. I had to be managed overseas. The doctors in Boston communicated with all of my doctors here including my obstetrician/gynecologist, general surgeon and my regular family doctor. They had all the information.”

Mrs Wells went overseas to have a mastectomy and then began chemo therapy. She regularly travelled between Bermuda and Boston for several weeks at a time. She had ultrasounds every couple of weeks to make sure the baby was all right. During the weeks she was back in Bermuda recovering she continued her work as managing director of W&W Solutions Ltd.

“A lot of people say it was amazing how I dealt with it,” she said. “I never thought twice about it. I did suffer badly from morning sickness and chemotherapy. A lot of times we didn’t know which one it was that was causing the sickness.”

Exactly 18 days after starting chemotherapy she began to lose her long hair. Eventually, she got a razor and shaved what was left off.

During the course of treatment and pregnancy, life continued to lob curve balls at her. She tested positive as a sickle cell carrier, which meant her baby could have been born with sickle cell anaemia it was not. She also developed gestational diabetes.

“Every time we turned around it was something else,” she said.

By the time she was being prepared for her final chemo treatment before having the baby, her doctors found she was too tired to go on with it.

“They couldn’t give me the last treatment, because my blood count was too low,” she said. “We always knew we would induce the pregnancy. They didn’t want to chance having to give me a caesarean section because with chemo the blood doesn’t clot properly.”

Before the baby was born the Wells had to sit down with medical staff and make some hard decisions. They had to decide which life to save in the event that Mrs Wells’ was threatened during the birth.

“They said it was possible that that could happen, especially with me being extremely exhausted from the chemotherapy,” said Mrs Wells. “Complications could happen. I told my husband, ‘If it comes to that, you save her. I am fine, let me go’. We dealt with a lot of things like that.”

She was induced, and after 18 long hours of labour, her daughter Ciarra Coral was born on October 3, four weeks premature.

Doctors initially had a little trouble getting the baby to breathe, but after that she did fabulously. The only setback was that she was jaundiced. Jaundice occurs when bilirubin builds up faster than a newborn’s liver can break it down and pass it from the body. Bilirubin is produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells. Jaundice is not uncommon even in full-term babies and is treated by putting the baby under special lights.

Mrs Wells was allowed to enjoy her new baby for two weeks and then had to start chemo treatments again every two weeks. She flew back and forth between her baby in Bermuda and Boston. Her husband had to remain in Bermuda with the baby, so her best friend, Lori Symonds, went to Boston with her to support her.

“It was very hard to leave my baby,” she said. “And I was worried that there was going to be something wrong with her. For months she didn’t have hair. Up until she was a year-old she didn’t have hair. I thought maybe this was related to going through the treatments with me. But now she has a lot of hair.”

In December 2007, Mrs Wells finally finished breast cancer treatment. She never needed radiation treatments, because doctors felt they had caught everything.

Ciarra, four, is now a student at Saltus Grammar School. Mrs Wells took her to the last breast cancer walk held in Bermuda, and stood with other women who had had breast cancer.

“I have been to the walks but I have never told my story before,” she said. “There was an [overseas] article in

The Royal Gazette recently about women being pregnant and having breast cancer. I wanted women here to know that they have options. Get a second opinion and don’t just go with the first opinion you get.”

Coral Wells and her daughter Ciarra.
Coral Wells in the hospital after baby Ciarra Coral Wells was born.
Coral Wells and her daughter Ciarra.
Coral Wells and her daughter Ciarra.

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Published March 01, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 01, 2012 at 7:36 am)

I found out that I was pregnant and had breast cancer on the same day

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