Her mortality was far from Floral Park resident Jennifer Murphy's mind two years back as she enjoyed the wonders of an Italian vacation with her mother.
Even when she felt a lump on her right breast during the trip, Murphy, 32, said she wasn't worried. Her family had no history of cancer, she thought, so why let something that was most likely nothing ruin her holiday? She'd get the lump checked when she returned to Long Island.
She came home, saw doctors, and got two pieces of news — one good, the other bad. Murphy was pregnant, doctors told her. She then got the lump checked and days later received a phone call telling her something no one, particularly a young pregnant woman in the prime of life, would want to hear. The lump on her breast was stage three breast cancer.
Suddenly faced with her own mortality, steep odds of recovery, and carrying her first child, Murphy could have given up. She chose to fight and Thursday, the results of enduring weeks of grueling chemotherapy and a double mastectomy were on display at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute in New Hyde Park in the form of a proud healthy mom — her equally healthy 18-month old daughter snuggled in a ball on her lap.
“I never thought my first pregnancy would be filled with such excitement and such fear,” said Murphy, at a news conference at the cancer institute with her husband, Kevin, nearby. “The fact that I am sitting here today with hair, and my daughter … is a miracle."
As she spoke — joined by doctors, nurses and others with the institute who accompanied Murphy on a harrowing nearly two-year journey — her toddler daughter, Marlowe, decked out in pink eyeglasses, a pink outfit and shimmering pink striped high-top sneakers, played with a ring. Marlowe's pink outfit was more than fitting considering pink is the color of choice for October's annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
As dire as it may have seemed on Jan. 2, 2018, the day she learned of her breast cancer diagnosis, Murphy soon found out that not all hope was lost.
Northwell doctors told her it was possible to go through chemotherapy during pregnancy and have a successful outcome.
They now routinely treat pregnant women who have cancer, Northwell doctors said Thursday. Murphy's story served as the perfect vehicle to raise breast cancer awareness during its signature month while hammering home a life-affirming message —. a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant, even the stage 3 variety, is far from a death sentence.
“As crazy as it may sound," said Dr. Jane Carleton, associate chief of the Monter Cancer Center at the institute, "it is actually safe to give chemotherapy once a woman is past the first trimester of pregnancy. … Baby Marlowe did beautifully throughout the pregnancy, and so did mom. Jen is an inspiration.“
Northwell doctors said about one of every 1,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with cancer. In the past 2 to 3 decades, medical research has developed to the point where many cases can be treated successfully while completing the pregnancy, they said.
“This is difficult, to take a patient who is pregnant and get them through chemotherapy and then have the baby delivered and have the baby do well,” said Dr. Richard Barakat, physician in chief and director of cancer for Northwell Cancer Institute. “We can take care of both."
Before she could take advantage of the institute's treatment plan, Murphy had to grapple with death as a real possibility even as her body continued working to create a new life.
“It’s a very stressful time,” she said. “As my body was basically trying to kill me, I was also growing another human being inside me.”
She went through eight weeks of chemotherapy during the pregnancy and eight more weeks after Marlowe's birth. Murphy then had a double mastectomy because she was considered at high risk for a cancer recurrence. A year ago doctors declared Murphy cancer-free but she will remain on medication for nine more years to prevent a recurrence.
“It is amazing where science and medicine have gotten us today,” she said.
Murphy's message to other women who find themselves in a similar situation was simple.
“You can do it. You can keep your baby," she said. "And if a doctor says you can’t, go to another.”