CALIFORNIA (NBC News/TODAY) — Just a couple of months after Jade Devis found out she was pregnant, a protruding bump appeared on her chest.
It was the beginning of an ordeal that forced the first-time mom and her developing fetus to undergo chemotherapy together after Devis was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I felt trapped. The only way out was to do the one thing that I thought I wasn’t supposed to do, which is put my baby in harm’s way,” Devis, 36, recalled to TODAY about her treatment options.
“You normally think they’re safe in your belly, but in my case, he wasn’t.”
Devis, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, California, had been plagued with intense pain in her breasts since she discovered she was expecting a baby in December 2018.
Her family and her doctor told her it was normal during pregnancy, but in February, she noticed a quarter-size oval bump that popped up above her left breast when she was lying down. It was hard as a rock and painful when she pressed on it.
Her doctor and a radiologist said it was most likely a clogged milk duct and recommended a six-month follow-up, but Devis insisted on a biopsy.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t ask for that biopsy,” she said. “Had I followed the doctor’s recommendations, I would be dead. It was such an aggressive tumor.”
The diagnosis: stage 2 triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease. Surgeons removed the large tumor and 10 of her lymph nodes during a lumpectomy in April.
The next step was chemotherapy, with some doctors telling Devis her health was now a priority and the baby was too young to save. She was offered the option to terminate the pregnancy, but Devis refused.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me his fate. I was going to do everything I could to save the baby. I wasn’t going to let a disease take the baby from me,” she recalled.
Dr. Gayathri Nagaraj, a medical oncologist at the Loma Linda University Cancer Center, remembers meeting Devis in April when she came to consult with her about undergoing chemotherapy. Pregnant breast cancer patients are very rare, she noted.
“As a woman, you have this extra empathy for this patient in front of you because it’s difficult to go through chemo in the first place, and here she is having to go through her first pregnancy and chemotherapy,” Nagaraj told TODAY.
“We wanted to give her every opportunity for cure that we would offer a non-pregnant patient.”
Chemotherapy is highly recommended after surgery for patients with triple negative breast cancer, Nagaraj said. It can’t be given to a pregnant woman during her first trimester when the fetus’ organs are forming, but certain chemotherapy drugs are safe during the second and third trimester, she added.
Nagaraj tells patients there are risks involved, but there are also definitely benefits.
Devis had to undergo another surgery to install a port in her chest for the drugs to be administered, then started chemotherapy when she was 25 weeks along in May — a regimen called FAC (5-fluorouracil, adriamycin, cyclophosphamide), the most tried chemo in pregnant patients. She did three rounds before giving birth to her son Bradley in July. He was full-term, healthy and weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces.
“I felt like I’ve been holding my breath the entire time when he was trapped in my belly and I had to go to chemo,” she said. “I’m just happy he’s out of my belly. He’s safe now.”
Still, Devis worries about the possibility of autism or other problems as he grows because she endured so many treatments and so much stress as she carried him. But so far, so good: Bradley now weighs 14 pounds and is developing normally, Devis noted.
She has to continue chemotherapy until the end of November — now with a different formulation of drugs since giving birth — which means exhaustion from the treatment on top of the fatigue she feels as a new parent. It can be physically painful for her to hold her son because of bone pain.
Devis is a single mom, so her older sister has moved in with her to help. A full body scan done after Devis gave birth shows she’s cancer-free. She’ll be scanned every six months.
“She’s doing great,” Nagaraj said. “We’re proud of how she handled everything.”
The doctor wanted other expectant moms who find out they have cancer to know there are treatment options available.
“There is hope,” Nagaraj said.