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Erie County woman fights cancer while pregnant

BY DAVID BRUCE, Erie Times-News

Jenise Baby

Jenise Kaliszewsk with daughter Brinley

Jenise Kaliszewski had been trying to get pregnant for less than a month when she first noticed a painful lump near her left armpit in June 2012.

A friend told Kaliszewski, 30, to see a doctor, even though the pain had subsided. The doctor sent the Franklin Township woman to get a sonogram and mammogram.

"As I was getting the mammogram, the radiologist started to look like she was watching a train wreck," Kaliszewski said. "I asked her what was going on. She hugged me and told me I had cancer."

Blood tests were scheduled and Kaliszewski met with an oncology surgeon to determine when she would get the malignant tumors removed.

Five days later, the surgeon called with test results: They showed Kaliszewski was pregnant.

"It felt like everything was hitting us all at once," said Kaliszewski's husband, Greg.

A common treatment for women with breast cancer is surgery, followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation. It's difficult for any patient, let alone a woman who just became pregnant.

Doctors tell younger women with breast cancer not to get pregnant while undergoing treatment. The anesthesia from surgery and the chemicals from chemotherapy and other drugs can affect a fetus, said Christopher Marsh, M.D., a medical oncologist at the Regional Cancer Center.

"The fetus is a developing baby," Marsh said. "Chemotherapy can affect rapidly dividing cells, so you always worry about doing it to a pregnant woman."

Jenise Kaliszewski had long discussions with her doctors. They told her she had HER-2 positive breast cancer, an aggressive type of cancer, and needed to start treatment immediately.

That's fine, she said, but she wanted to keep the baby.

"The way my ob-gyn explained it, I was so early into my pregnancy that either I would miscarry during surgery or the embryo would be completely protected," Jenise Kaliszewski said.

She underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery on Aug. 20, even though cancer was found only in one breast.

Removing both breasts reduces her chances of breast cancer in the future.

The good news was that the baby handled surgery well.

The bad news was that the cancer had spread to at least one lymph node.

"That was maybe the scariest moment for me," Jenise Kaliszewski said. "That's when I leaned a lot on my faith, family, friends and my doctors, who were great."

At that point, most women start to get chemotherapy and herceptin, an intravenous drug used specifically to treat HER-2 positive cancer. But herceptin is toxic for a fetus, Marsh said.

"We don't like to give chemotherapy to pregnant women, but there are ways you can protect the baby," Marsh said. "But herceptin -- we don't even think about giving that during pregnancy."

Jenise Kaliszewski went to Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh to meet with a fertility specialist, oncologist and high-risk ob-gyn to determine the best way to keep the baby and get treated for cancer.

It was determined that chemotherapy would wait until Jenise Kaliszewski was at least 13 weeks pregnant. The order of chemotherapy drugs was changed slightly to reduce the possibility of harming the fetus, Marsh said.

Jenise Kaliszewski went to the Regional Cancer Center for treatment every three weeks. The combination of chemotherapy and being pregnant often left her fatigued, but she still found energy to work full time as a lead transportation security officer at Erie International Airport.

"I'd get tired and I wouldn't know if it was from the chemo or the pregnancy," she said. "The pregnancy is what helped get me through those days, looking forward to that little miracle."

Jenise Kaliszewski lost her shoulder-length hair but suffered no other significant side effects during her treatment. Regular sonograms at her ob-gyn's office showed her baby was growing normally.

"Through the pregnancy, I never considered just myself as the patient," she said. "Brinley and I were a team, both one patient -- whatever procedure or treatment I went through had the potential to affect her, too. I'll never forget the feeling I had at the last treatment we received before delivery: We were pausing part way through the treatment cycle to get my blood counts where they needed to be prior to delivering. Sitting at (the cancer center) on March 11th, it instantly hit me ... she no longer had to suffer being the patient, she was now simply the daughter, and I became the patient. It was the happiest day I can recall, knowing that my baby would never have to endure that poisoning again."

Brinley was born April 7.

Everything went smoothly.

"I was so happy that Brinley looked ... " Greg Kaliszewski said as he held the 1-month-old infant against his chest.

"Healthy," Jenise Kaliszewski quickly added, laughing. "I was so worried about preterm labor because it's so common with women who are pregnant and undergoing treatment."

Jenise Kaliszewski returned to the Regional Cancer Center on May 3 to resume her treatments. She is getting three more weeks of chemotherapy and a full year of herceptin.

During her first treatment since Brinley's birth, Regional Cancer Center nurses and technicians surprised Jenise Kaliszewski with baby presents.

She also received a gift from her doctors: a good prognosis.

"Her scans have been good," Marsh said. "I think she has a good chance of being cured."

Jenise Kaliszewski said she never has considered herself a victim and has focused on beating a disease that kills about 40,000 U.S. women a year. She considers her cancer an opportunity to help others who are diagnosed with a serious illness.

"I'm glad it was me instead of anybody else in my family," she said. "I have seen what my family and friends have gone through during my illness. I know that I'm OK, but they don't and they feel so helpless."

Article seen in Erie Times News on May 14, 2013