For many women, receiving the news of a pregnancy brings feelings of joy and excitement. Thoughts turn to eating well, resting and building a new nursery. But in Karla’s case, nothing could have prepared her for the news that would change those feelings.
During self-examination one day, Karla, 41, and a mother of one, discovered a lump in her groin. She made an appointment to have it checked out and after a biopsy was performed, doctors informed her that the results were inconclusive.
Karla went about life. But the nagging feeling that the lump didn’t seem normal persisted. Karla decided to have a second opinion with the experts at Penn Medicine. What appeared to be a healthy, stress-free pregnancy would soon turn into a long journey of survival and recovery.
Receiving a Cancer Diagnosis
Karla was diagnosed with composite lymphoma, which is a rare form of blood cancer in which different types of lymphoma cells occur at the same time. Her lymphoma had both Hodgkin and follicular lymphoma cells.
The news was devastating but thankfully, Karla’s dedicated team of obstetricians, maternal fetal medicine specialists, and oncologists sprang into action and developed a multidisciplinary treatment plan to treat the cancer and her baby all at once.
Lymphoma is a type of cancer that involves the cells of the immune system. According to the American Cancer Society, treatment options for a pregnant woman with lymphoma depend on several factors such as the extent of the disease, how quickly it is growing, and how far along the pregnancy is.
Bracing for Cancer Treatment
For Karla facing a complex type of lymphoma, treatment needed to begin immediately in order to save her and her baby.
Karla’s first method of treatment was chemotherapy. While having lymphoma diagnosed during pregnancy is uncommon, many women have received chemotherapy for cancer during pregnancy. There is enough study that shows chemotherapy is safe beginning in the second trimester. The only concerning side effect Karla experienced during chemotherapy was a decreased movement of her baby following treatment.
“Shortly after chemo, I noticed my baby wouldn’t move as much. I figured that whatever I felt, my baby felt. If I was tired, she was tired.” says Karla.
The chemotherapy treatment worked. She delivered a healthy baby girl and was in remission. However, because she had an aggressive type of cancer, her team of doctors decided to begin radiation therapy two weeks later. Her oncologists at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center chose proton therapy as the next treatment of choice.
Fighting Cancer with Proton Therapy
Proton therapy is a type of radiation which uses a beam of proton to irradiate cancerous tissue. Proton can target a patient’s tumor with sub-millimeter precision while sparing nearby healthy tissues and minimizing side effects. The main advantage of proton therapy is that the physician can control where the proton releases the bulk of its cancer-fighting energy.
During proton therapy, Karla felt no side effects. In fact, she says she didn’t know when her treatment session began or ended. It was quick and painless. She received a total of 17 sessions of proton with her last completed in April 2017 and was declared cancer-free.
“I loved my treatment team. I was treated so kindly and respectfully each time I came for treatment. Everything was absolutely amazing. I felt like I was going to a five-star hotel.” says Karla.
Karla’s baby girl, Olivia, is now three months old. She is healthy and shows no side effects from chemotherapy.
She and her brother Nico, 8, keep single mom Karla busy. Between Olivia’s needs and Nico’s active schedule of swimming, bike rides and school, Karla has not slowed down.
Although some fear remains of recurrence, Karla stays focused on good health and raising her children. Her oncologists have told her that there is a strong possibility that the cancer will come back. She will see her doctors for follow-up every three months, more than likely for the rest of her life.
For now, Karla is just thankful for her amazing group of talented physicians who saved her life, and her daughter’s.
Karla would like to thank her medical team: