What it’s like to be diagnosed with cancer while you’re pregnant

Katherine Welch was 22 weeks pregnant with her first child when she discovered she had leukemia
Katherine Welch
Photograph by Jason Hurst Photography

I was about halfway through my pregnancy when I started to get dizzy and really fatigued. At first I just chalked it up to being pregnant, but after a couple of weeks I said to my husband, “Something is just not right.”

I went to see my obstetrician and had some blood work done, which showed my hemoglobin level was very low. My doctor referred me to a hematologist. Still, I didn’t think it was anything serious—until I saw the word cancer in the name of the clinic. I started to freak out. I thought, What am I doing here?

When I first got the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, they mentioned the possibility of terminating the pregnancy. They didn’t think the baby would make it through chemo, and they knew that it would be more complicated to treat me while I was pregnant. But there was no way I could do that. This was my first pregnancy, and at that point he was kicking and moving around. I’d heard the heartbeat. The nursery was done. We’d picked out a name, Michael. I just wanted him to be okay. I wanted to be a mom.

The good news was that, at 22 weeks, his organs were already developed. We just needed to keep him growing and healthy. They did alter some of the medications in my chemo regimen to help protect Michael. And I had an ultra-sound each week to check everything in detail: lungs, heart, amniotic fluid, everything. Hearing his heartbeat every day and seeing him on the ultrasound every week, it made me feel optimistic.

I definitely stood out among the cancer patients on my floor. But I’d also see patients who had six months left to live. Talking with them while I sat there pregnant, it totally changed the way I think about life and how precious it is.

From the get-go, my doctors talked about early delivery, but they wanted to see how far I could get. My water broke at 35 weeks on New Year’s Eve. A lot of the doctors and nurses who had seen me came by to check on us and to wish us good luck.

Michael was born that afternoon. They laid him on my chest for a few minutes and then sent him to the neonatal intensive care unit, while I went to get blood and platelet transfusions. I got to see him around eight that night, and it was surreal to finally hold him. When we left the hospital, after we got in the car, I turned to my husband and said, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. We have Michael, and we have me, and none of us is hooked up to anything.” It felt like a miracle. —As told to Jennifer Rainey Marquez

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.