In the summer of 2022, Alison,37, was enjoying life as a new mom in Bayside, Wisconsin. Alison had just recently stopped breastfeeding, when she found a lump in her right breast. She contacted her primary care doctor for a breast exam, and they both agreed to continue to monitor it.
By the fall of 2022, Alison found out she was pregnant with her second child. That’s when she noticed the lump in her breast had changed — becoming rock hard and painful — and she knew something was wrong.
During her initial pregnancy checkup at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Ozaukee, Alison’s obstetrician, Jessica L. Hoelzle, MD, ordered an ultrasound. During the wait for the ultrasound, Alison had so many thoughts running through her mind. She was newly pregnant, with a toddler at home, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and now had a potential cancer diagnosis weighing on her.
The ultrasound results were concerning and Alison needed to have three biopsies right away — one on her left breast and two on her right. After the biopsies, she received a call from her care navigator, Margaret (Peggy) Long, RN, confirming her fears: Alison, who was 17 weeks pregnant with her second baby, was diagnosed with early-stage 2A breast cancer.
“Our world completely stopped and turned upside down in a moment,” said Alison.
She had no family history of breast cancer, but because she was only 35 at the time of her diagnosis, Alison’s care team recommended genetic testing. If her cancer was hereditary, it could increase her risk of developing a second diagnosis later in life. Fortunately, her results came back negative.
Alison credits her second pregnancy for finding the cancer.
“I was more aware of my body and the changes pregnancy can bring,” she said. “Ultimately this led me to advocate for myself — requesting the checks and scans — which found the cancer.”
The days following the diagnosis were tough for Alison. Nurse Peggy worked hard to coordinate Alison’s treatment plan, gather her care team, and schedule her appointments. For Alison, it was the hardest 10 days of her life.
“It was gut-wrenching. I was constantly crying,” Alison recalled. “I was either on the phone with doctors or at the hospital for scans — it was around the clock, it seemed. And, I had to go to all these appointments alone because of the pandemic [and visitor restrictions].”
Working together with you and for you
After her diagnosis, Alison was scheduled to be seen in the breast multidisciplinary clinic at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital - Ozaukee Campus. She met her care team, including her surgeon Alysandra Lal, MD, medical oncologist Ranveer Nand, MD, radiation oncologist, Erika Swanson, MD, and her physical therapist. They all worked with Alison to develop a treatment plan that met her specific needs, partnering closely with her maternity care team to ensure the health and safety of her baby.
Soon, Alison was undergoing surgery — a right breast lumpectomy, which is the removal of the lump and a right axillary dissection that removed lymph nodes.
"Alison is an incredibly strong, positive person,” said Dr. Lal. “Being diagnosed with breast cancer is universally difficult, but the challenge is compounded in a young patient, and particularly, in a pregnant patient.”
Alison had to start physical therapy to reduce the risk of lymphedema following her surgery. She also began chemotherapy a few weeks later, when she was 24-weeks pregnant.
Alison gave birth to a happy and healthy baby in July. At 8- weeks postpartum, she was able to resume her chemotherapy and began a targeted therapy to block the HER2 protein found on the breast cancer cells.
Importance of staying mentally strong
Undergoing cancer treatment can be challenging on its own, but during all this, Alison was navigating new motherhood and her second pregnancy, while working full time and during a pandemic.
“I am so grateful that my kids are too little to remember all this,” Alison stated.
Many times she had physical restrictions and couldn’t lift or carry her children. She struggled to get enough rest while caring for her daughter, being pregnant and going through cancer treatment.
Alison found peace taking care of her mind, body and spirit. She recalls leaning on her care navigator, therapist, pastor, other cancer patients, her husband, parents, family and friends for support to get through the most challenging days.
“You can physically handle it, but mental strength is almost a bigger part of the journey. That, and learning to give yourself grace and ask for help, too,” said Alison.
Her care team at Ascension Wisconsin also played a large role in helping her stay mentally strong. The care she received allowed her to successfully manage her loved ones' reactions while processing the news on her own initially, as well as manage the 18-month journey through chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy.
“I think Alison's optimism and determination helped her to get through the treatments,” said Dr. Lal. “We look forward to celebrating her children's milestones with her in the future."
Alison completed her cancer treatments in October 2022 and is grateful to be part of the community of breast cancer survivors.
Compassionate care close to home
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, but here you’ll find a supportive care team with you at every step. By getting to know you and working together, you get a care plan that’s customized to your needs. And with a plan, comes hope. Our goal is to help you recover faster so you can get back to life. Find a cancer specialist by visiting ascension.org/wisconsincancercare.