Breast cancer is diagnosed in roughly one pregnant woman in 3,000, according to the American Cancer Society.
In 2009, Pauline Russ was one of them.
Russ was 34 years old and four months pregnant when an ultrasound and biopsy confirmed that she had stage 2, triple-positive breast cancer.
Before her diagnosis, Russ informed her doctor of a pain in her right breast at a routine pregnancy checkup.
“Once my first trimester was over, she sent me to have an ultrasound just in case, although we both thought, ‘oh I’m sure it’s milk ducts getting ready,’” she said.
After the ultrasound, Russ was told nothing other than she needed to get a biopsy, but she could tell that something was wrong.
“When I left that day, I opened up the piece of paper they gave me, and it said ‘category 5, highly suspicious of breast cancer,’” Russ recalled. “I remember being in my car just banging my head against the steering wheel, thinking what am I going to do?”
At first, she feared that she could not be treated while pregnant.
Luckily, extensive research has proved that certain chemotherapy drugs, such as Adriamycin Cytoxan, are safe for both the mother and fetus during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
Russ was told she would undergo chemotherapy for 12 weeks at no harm to her unborn child.
“Once it got confirmed and once I had a plan, the anxiety levels went down so much,” she said.
She said she felt well enough to continue her work as a physical therapist manager at OhioHealth throughout the treatment, but the safety of her baby still weighed heavily on her mind.
“Every chemotherapy session, when I would watch the stuff drip in me, I was always scared that it was getting to him, too,” Russ said.
After the first round of chemo and a three-week break, Russ was induced into labor at 37 weeks pregnant. Just six hours later, on March 30, 2010, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Taxiarchi Michael Russ.
“I was bald at that point, and it was the most reassuring thing that he had hair all over,” she said. “He really was okay during the treatments.”
Russ underwent an additional round of chemotherapy, and after another small break had a successful one-sided mastectomy. She also began taking Herceptin, a targeted cancer drug.
“This was not how I imagined spending my first years as a new mom, but I learned so much during that time — lessons that have stayed with me and have made me a better wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend,” Russ said, adding that she wouldn’t have been able to make it without the support from her husband, family, friends and fellow staff at OhioHealth, where she also got treated.
One nurse told her that cancer is “like a big sandwich — you can only take one bite at a time,” which is what she tried to do by celebrating every step forward in her battle against breast cancer.
She is now cancer-free.
She transitioned from her role at OhioHealth as a physical therapist to the system director of surgical oncology, breast health and genetics at OhioHealth, which allows her to exercise her passion of helping those with cancer.
Russ recently participated in Dancing with the Survivors, in which she and several other local breast cancer survivors paired up with professional dancers in front of a live audience — similar to Dancing with the Stars. The event takes place in multiple U.S. cities each year, and donations and ticket sales benefit the Pink Fund, a public charity that offers financial assistance to breast cancer patients. Russ raised about $2,000.
Despite the countless bad parts, going through cancer gave Russ a new joy for life.
“All the cliches — ‘enjoy every day,’ ‘don’t sweat the small stuff,’ — are so, so true,” she said. “Everything in life is worth celebrating. That’s the big lesson here.”
And she doesn’t forget those who weren’t so lucky.
“Those of us who have survived don’t forget about the ones who have passed,” Russ said. “When we raise money, when we make efforts to progress research and the treatment of cancer, it is in their honor.”
The original story was published in The Columbus Dispatch’s 2016 Pink Papers special section.