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A Mother & Her Miracle

  • Date Submitted: Feb 23, 2021

“ A complicated diagnosis put more than Irma’s life at risk—but her team at Kern Medical said ‘yes’ when others said ‘no.’”

Irma Martinez is bubbly, bright, and full of life. As a supervisor at a staffing agency, she interacts with people all day, and her outgoing personality has allowed her to forge many friendships over the years. At 39 years old, Irma had so much—a loving husband of two decades, David, a flourishing career, and two beautiful children, Jazmine and David. However, she desperately hoped and prayed for a third child.

In spring of 2017, Irma and her family were about to go on vacation for her daughter’s birthday when she found a lump. It wasn’t very large—it sat on the left side of her chest near her clavicle, just a small, hard pebble underneath her skin. She did not want to worry herself or her family, but she made an appointment at a nearby clinic for the next day.

Over the next couple of weeks, she was given an MRI and an ultrasound, but the results were inconclusive. The clinic she went to took biopsies, but they made repeated errors, misplacing samples or not collecting enough tissue for the tests. Finally, she received a call with good news—she was cancer-free. She was overjoyed. Unfortunately, her bliss was shortlived. Two days later, she received a call from the same clinic informing her that they had made a mistake. The mass was, in fact, cancerous. After additional testing, she was told that it was stage two breast cancer. The tumor was a 3 centimeter mass and would need to be treated as soon as possible.

“I think my world fell apart during this time,” said Irma. “To feel the relief of not having cancer and then to have it ripped away was heartbreaking.”

A Mother’s Intuition

One month later, Irma had a strange feeling in her gut. It nagged at her until she acted—and when she took a pregnancy test, her suspicions were confirmed. She was pregnant! Despite her recent cancer diagnosis, Irma felt tentatively hopeful and excited for her pregnancy. She returned to the clinic she had been going to, but because she now had a high-risk pregnancy, they said they could not treat her. They referred her to outside doctors for both her pregnancy and her cancer.

Irma first went to an oncologist, who encouraged her to terminate her pregnancy because treatment would be dangerous. She did not feel any sense of urgency from the team for her to begin cancer treatment, even though her situation seemed desperately urgent to Irma and her family. Seeking a qualified oncologist close to her home, Irma turned to Kern Medical.

The first time Irma met with Dr. Everardo Cobos, Chief of Oncology at Kern Medical, and his team, she knew that he was the doctor to treat her cancer. For Irma, the connection was immediate. She could tell that they cared for not just her well-being, but that of her child. She also met with Dr. Randolph Fok, Chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Kern Medical, and he comforted Irma with his calm demeanor and wealth of experience. She had found her team, and she finally allowed herself to feel truly optimistic.

Right away, Dr. Cobos and Dr. Fok began conferring about a comprehensive treatment plan for Irma. She was afraid of hurting the baby during the cancer treatment, but Dr. Cobos and Dr. Fok reassured her, telling her that she could safely have chemotherapy during her pregnancy without putting her baby’s health at risk.

“It was clear that the doctors at Kern Medical cared about both me and my baby,” said Irma. “They told me we would both be okay, and for the first time since my diagnosis, I believed it.”

Developing a Plan

The first trimester is unsafe for cancer treatment because that is when the fetus is forming, but during the second and third trimesters, chemotherapy can be safely administered because the baby’s organs have already developed sufficiently. By the time Irma realized she was pregnant and met with the doctors at Kern Medical, she was about nine weeks along, which meant that she could begin chemotherapy just a few weeks later.

Because of Irma’s complicated situation, Dr. Cobos and Dr. Fok assembled a large team to consult on her case, including specialists in oncology, obstetrics, perinatal care, and anesthesia, as well as Irma’s family physician. Everyone needed to work together to create a plan for mother and baby to have a healthy outcome—but it all started with Irma.

“A lot of people don’t realize that if a woman says, ‘I really want to keep the pregnancy,’ that can be accomplished,” said Dr. Cobos. “It requires a special level of expertise and a special team, but the patient has to be able to put up with a lot, and Irma was a trooper.”

Ultimately, the team decided to administer Irma’s chemotherapy during her second and third trimesters—a total of five rounds. Following this, they would induce labor and deliver the baby. The delivery would take place in February of 2018, intentionally scheduled six weeks early so that she could receive more cancer treatment as soon as possible. The next step would involve surgery to remove the tumor and any cancerous cells nearby. The entire team would closely monitor both mother and baby during this process, altering the plan if necessary.

Irma tolerated the chemotherapy well, and fortunately, so did the baby. Everything was going as planned—the baby grew properly and showed no signs of distress or discomfort. Irma completed her fifth round of chemotherapy about a month before her planned delivery date, and her team of doctors decided to pause chemotherapy at that time to give both mother and baby a break.

Delivery day arrived quickly, and everything went smoothly. On January 26, 2018, Irma’s new baby boy, Julian, came out healthy and happy, weighing 5 pounds and measuring 18 1/2 inches. Irma and her family were ecstatic.

“I call him my ‘little miracle baby’ because after enduring five rounds of chemo in utero, he’s completely healthy,” said Irma. “My husband and I couldn’t have been happier.”

The Security of Support

Once Irma had recovered from the birth, she was scheduled for surgery. They planned to remove the lump near her clavicle and hoped the cancer had not spread further down into her chest. The team’s goal was to preserve as much of her breast as possible, but they were unsure of how much was affected by the cancer.

Fortunately, the surgery was a partial mastectomy, meaning they removed the tumor and avoided removing any significant portion of breast tissue. Irma was a viable candidate for this because she only had one tumor and it was less than 5 centimeters in diameter. Doctors also removed two lymph nodes near the tumor to run some tests, but they showed completely clear margins—Irma was cancer-free.

“Irma is a very courageous woman who overcame significant adversity to achieve a great outcome for her pregnancy,” said Dr. Fok. “I, along with Dr. Cobos, was happy to be able to support her during her pregnancy while she also received treatment for a malignancy.”

Once in remission, Irma elected to participate in radiation at the advice of her doctors as a proactive, preventative measure. After six weeks of treatment, Irma was still in remission, celebrating her new baby and her new lease on life. She and her baby are still healthy today.

“From time to time, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t sure I was going to see my little girl graduate, that I would get to see my son become a man like his father,” said Irma. “My medical team offered incomparable support during this difficult experience, and it changed everything for me. Kern Medical gave me hope that I was going to be okay, that I didn’t have to worry about it. That hope got me through every single treatment.”