When Leigh Hurst was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, having children wasn’t foremost on her mind.
“I had been following my career and figured at some point I would get married and have kids, but since I wasn’t in a serious relationship I hadn’t thought about it in any way other than in the future tense,” she said. “However, I wanted to be sure I didn’t do anything that would eliminate the possibility of having kids in case I wanted to someday.”
Although it’s possible to get pregnant after breast cancer treatment, some treatments may specifically affect a woman’s fertility. Some others are so long that they push a woman into an age that generally makes childbearing more of a challenge.
Statistics on pregnancy after breast cancer treatment are hard to come by. According to breastcancer.org, “because each woman's situation is unique, it's not easy to study pregnancy in women with breast cancer or women who have been treated for breast cancer. It's difficult to find women with the same cancer status and fertility outcomes who can be compared in randomized clinical trials.”
Hurst was fortunate in that she did some of her own research and had a supportive treatment team that considered the possibility of pregnancy when making some of her treatment choices in 2004. She’s now the proud mom of Eli, 6, and Leo, 5, who she had at ages 40 and 42.
Even using some extra precautions during her chemotherapy (she did ovary suppression using Lupron), Hurst still had to take the drug Tamoxifen for five years before being able to try getting pregnant. That put her at age 39 before she would even be able to safely start trying to conceive.
Hurst said she was never a girl who dreamed of growing up, getting married and having kids, but the cancer diagnosis forced her to have to consider her future in a way that she wasn’t necessarily ready to at the time.
“That really pissed me off more than the diagnosis. You’re really controlling my entire life now,” she said about the cancer.
Hurst turned her diagnosis into a calling and founded The Feel Your Boobies Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit breast cancer organization that promotes proactive breast health in young women through strategic education and outreach programs.
“I think the hardest part about the whole thing was that there were so many different issues going on after diagnosis,” Hurst said. “The obvious one is the life/death thing related to the cancer itself. But being young (still dating, no kids, etc), there are so many other issues that come up….there’s the issue of being concerned about how your breasts will look after surgery, there’s the issue of worrying that people will be afraid to date you because they think you might get sick again, there’s the life event type considerations in wondering if you’ll ever get married and have kids. It’s just overwhelming.”
Hurst had some good luck with doctors who helped her navigate trying to keep pregnancy as an option, and she had some less-than-good-luck with doctors who didn’t feel her initial discovery of a lump was anything noteworthy. Through it all, though, she stayed pretty steadfast and tries to help other women do the same.
“I think the thing I try to tell all women going through breast cancer (whether it’s about having kids or not) is that you have to try to focus on the ‘now” issues and not ones that can only be resolved in time. There was nothing I could do at 33 to know if chemo would put me into menopause, or if I would be able to have kids at age 39…I had to learn to trust that time would reveal all of that.”
Although Hurst points out that you can’t know the future, she does stress that women diagnosed with breast cancer must be their own advocates.
According to the American Cancer Society: “Studies have suggested that women with cancer are less likely to be given information about preserving their fertility than men. Women who already have at least one child or those who are not married also are less likely to receive information.”
The ACS website says women may need to start the conversation with their cancer team or doctor(s), noting that “Most cancer survivors can still choose to become a parent if they wish. It might not happen the way you planned before cancer, but if you can be flexible, you’ll find that you have options. These include possible freezing of eggs, embryos, or pieces of your ovary, having infertility treatment after cancer, adopting, or using a donated egg or embryo to have a child (sometimes with the help of another woman to carry the pregnancy).”
A recent study presented at the 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology Conference found that having a child after breast cancer treatment does not make a woman more likely to have a recurrence.
Natalie Kopp with the PA Breast Cancer Coalition called the study “fantastic.”
The study profiled more than 1,200 women under age 50 who were diagnosed with non-metastatic breast cancer before 2008. More than 300 of the women who participated became pregnant following treatment. The research team then matched each patient who became pregnant with three patients who had similar cancer characteristics, but did not become pregnant. After 10 years from the diagnosis, the research team found no difference in recurrence rate between women who became pregnant and those who did not.
In the end, Hurst is satisfied with the way her life has worked out. A central Pennsylvania native, she had spent years in lucrative, high-profile jobs in major cities. It was in 2004 that she decided she wanted to simplify her life and make a change. So she moved back home to Middletown and then found herself relying on the small town hospitality when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It created a new path,” she said of the diagnosis and what came next. “I think I became thankful pretty quickly.
“I think it helped me believe there’s a bigger picture.”