My son is healthy and thriving and I want others to know there is hope. When everything was happening to me I looked for stories, but never found one like mine. I want to share my story to try to help other young pregnant women feel better about their situation.
So far, nothing this year has gone the way Paola Chavez expected. She had planned to begin the year newly married, living in Mexico, and planning her future with her new husband. Instead, she was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time she learned she was pregnant. She put off her wedding and returned home to Los Angeles for treatment. Her fiancé, who does not have the documents he needs to live legally in the US, stayed behind in Mexico.
During her pregnancy, Chavez made the difficult decision with the help of her health care team to undergo chemotherapy. They determined that chemo would give her and her baby the best chance of a healthy outcome. Today she and baby Azriel are doing well.
“My son is healthy and thriving and I want others to know there is hope,” said Chavez. “When everything was happening to me I looked for stories, but never found one like mine. I want to share my story to try to help other young pregnant women feel better about their situation.”
Chavez had moved away from home in Los Angeles to live in Mexico with her fiancé when she first noticed a lump in her breast in September 2017. She didn’t think much of it because she’d had lumps come and go in the past. But she soon learned she was pregnant and visited a doctor. The doctor said the lump was likely related to the pregnancy, not a concern, and would eventually resolve on its own.
A couple of months later, Chavez attended a wedding in Los Angeles, where much of her large, close-knit family still lives. They urged her to get a second opinion at a local hospital, and she underwent several tests including a biopsy. She found out on Jan. 4, 2018 that she had a type of breast cancer called invasive ductal carcinoma. This type of breast cancer starts in cells that line milk ducts in the breast and grows into nearby breast tissues. Chavez’ tumor was large enough that her medical team advised her to begin chemotherapy immediately, even though she was 5 months pregnant.
“I was just in shock. I didn’t know what to expect and I was scared for my baby,” said Chavez. “In just a short time, I had to make a choice – not only for myself, but also for my unborn son. I had to trust my doctors. Chemo had been given to other pregnant women before, and my doctors said it would be safe for my son. I had to believe them.”
What’s more, genetic testing revealed that Chavez had a BRCA1 gene mutation. This type of inherited mutation significantly increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast cancer. Chavez then needed to consider whether to undergo a double mastectomy to lower her risk of a second breast cancer.
Baby Azriel Ezra was born healthy on March 8, 2018. Chavez gave him the middle name, Ezra, which she says means “message from God.” She believes he was a literal message from God that led to her finding the cancer when it was early enough to still be treated.
Chavez has taken Azriel to visit her fiancé in Mexico, but is now living with her mother in Los Angeles where she can be close to her medical care team and Azriel’s pediatrician. Her mother, sister, and cousins help care for her and the baby and take her to medical appointments. But soon after Azriel was born, Chavez learned her tumor had grown even larger and she couldn’t wait any longer to have breast surgery. She opted to have a double mastectomy.
Recovering from surgery and dealing with pain and nausea from chemotherapy while taking care of a new baby has not been easy. But Chavez says baby Azriel motivates her to stay positive and strong. She still has several more chemotherapy treatments to go, and then expects to start radiation. Next year, she hopes to have breast reconstruction surgery.
“It’s been a weird and complicated year, starting with bad news, but good news too,” says Chavez. She says she knows she’s lucky to be surrounded by loving, supportive family members who take care of her, but cancer still takes an emotional toll.
“I want my family and friends to be very positive and not feel sorry for me,” says Chavez. “So I pretend I’m strong for them. I’m very positive in front of them. I smile and say I don’t care that my hair fell out because it will grow back, or I got a cute hat. But I do care. It gets to me when they cry in front of me. I cry too, but only behind their backs.”
Chavez socializes with friends and family when they come to the house, but she hasn’t gone out much since she lost her hair and underwent breast surgery. She was recently fitted for a mastectomy bra, and she’s hoping that helps her begin to feel better about the changes in her appearance.
And there is always Azriel. “Look, he’s here and I’m ok,” she says. “He’s a very happy baby, always smiling. Looking at him gives me the courage to continue. I’m almost done with treatment, but my story is not over.”
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
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