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She Was Diagnosed With Cancer and Scheduled to Have a Lumpectomy — but Doctors Found Something Surprising in Her Blood Work the Day Before Surgery


"On my last day of chemo, we weren't sure what to do..."

Mary and Mark Harris had one child and were considering having another when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, seemingly derailing plans to build their family. But just one day before Harris was scheduled to have a lumpectomy, doctors found something completely stunning in her blood work: she was pregnant after all — adding a complex dynamic to her cancer treatment.

Days before discovering her surprise pregnancy, Harris, the health editor for WNYC radio, told NPR that she had come to terms with the challenges that cancer would cause for both natural birth and adoption and had assumed that having a second child simply wasn't an option.

But she was clearly in for a surprise.

"The day before my scheduled lumpectomy, my oncology nurse called with stunning news — routine blood work had uncovered that I was pregnant," Harris said.

She kept a diary of her experiences, which began in October 2013 after she had surgery to remove the lump and was allowed to see the baby in an ultrasound.

At the time, Harris said that she had no idea how aggressive the tumor was and said that doctors had made her promise to consider termination if the "cancer was worse than they expected." In the end, her pregnancy forged on as she combatted the cancer with chemo.

It was in February 2014 that Harris began treatment while pregnant and in her third trimester. Considering that little is known about the impact of chemo on unborn babies, there were clearly some potential risks involved.

"On my last day of chemo, we weren't sure what to do, so we went to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to celebrate," she wrote in a May 2014 entry. "But it felt like we had so many hurdles still ahead of us — I had to get my blood counts up, give birth, then get radiation. And we were hoping the baby was healthy."

At the end of that very month, Harris gave birth to Stella, who she said was a normal weight, had a full head of hair and appeared healthy. That said, Harris still has her fears about the impact of treatment on her child.

"No one knows what her exposure to the chemo really was, but her mop of black hair seemed like proof that she was protected, somehow," she said.

Listen to Harris share her story below:

Harris admitted that she still worries whether Stella is "normal" or "hitting her milestones."

With little protocol in place for tracking unborn children exposed to chemo, Harris said that some of the potential side effects might not be seen until years from now.

Harris' story is being told through "Living Cancer," a radio series airing nationally on NPR. Read her journal here.

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