At 23 weeks pregnant, in April of 2017, Megan Keller didn’t think much of it when her left breast felt tender and warm.
“I thought I had mastitis, a clogged milk duct that gets infected,” Keller said. “I thought that’s what it was because I had had other children.”
Pain persisted, but given a grueling work schedule and busy family life, she had little time to check it out.
“I just didn’t have time, you know, you let it go,” she said. “But it kept giving me a tingly sensation. A week and a half later, I called the doctor and he got me in right away.”
That Tuesday of Easter week, the doctor sent her home with a prescription for an antibiotic and a referral for an ultrasound.
Spectrum Health scheduling called her that evening to let her know they could get her in the next day.
On Wednesday, she went to Spectrum Health Lemmen Holton Cancer Pavilion for what she thought would be a routine ultrasound.
Instead, she saw fireworks.
“The screen looked like the Fourth of July,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re going to have the radiologist look at this.’ Do you ever get the feeling that you just know that something’s wrong? They asked what the rest of my afternoon looked like.’ They wanted to do a biopsy.”
Keller’s husband, David, was tied up at work.
“They asked if I had anyone with me and I said, ‘No, just go ahead,’” Keller said. “It was just kind of a blur at that point anyway. They took me back and got me prepped and ready and started taking biopsies of my left breast.”
The radiologist also saw some questionable spots on her right breast in the scans. She came back the next day for more biopsies.
Bad news on Good Friday
“I was a hysterical mess,” Keller said. “You just have that feeling. You just know. The night before (I got the results), my husband and I were running to Meijer’s for something. We were taking about the ‘what if’ situations. He kind of had his moment of losing it in the car.”
Keller received the somber phone call on Good Friday.
“I was in the Meijer drive-through picking up my prescription for the antibiotic,” the Rockford, Michigan, resident said. “They said, ‘Megan Keller?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘We have the results from your biopsy.’”
Her senses numbed. Her mind whirled.
“Your whole life flashes before you, even though, if it’s caught early, there’s a good chance you’re going to beat it,” Keller said.
But Keller wanted more than a chance. She wanted confidence. And a calm soul.
“You have two young kids,” she said. “And I was 23 weeks pregnant with our son at the time. We had just found out it was our baby boy we had been trying for for so long. Now, it was finally a boy after having two girls. I had already had three miscarriages before. It was just a really long, stressful, sad time trying to conceive.”
And the phone call? More stressful and sad.
“I was so upset in the car when I answered the phone that I couldn’t even breathe,” she said. “The words weren’t even coming out of my mouth. It was like an emotion of mad, sad and crying hysterically all in the same phone conversation. Then, I was just numb.”
She pushed ‘end’ on her phone. Would it be the same for her, she wondered. She felt nothing but emptiness, a cavernous void where her hopes, dreams and life once stood.
“I got off the phone and there was no emotion,” Keller said. “I remember Jadynn asking, ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’ I said, ‘I have breast cancer.’ I remember the look on her face. How do you tell your children that? They’re old enough to understand what breast cancer is, but not old enough to understand what’s going to happen. Is your mom going to die? It was a lot of raw emotion.”
Those initial moments led to minutes, then hours. Keller’s thoughts and emotions tangled and twirled.
“I was really scared they were going to tell me I was going to have to terminate my pregnancy,” she said. “Or, I was going to end up losing my life because I wouldn’t be able to have treatment. My mind was just racing at that point about what was going to happen.”
Also on her mind—the personality of the Stage 3 cancer that had manifested in her body—a cocky one, an aggressive one.
Fighting cancer while pregnant
“This was an extremely aggressive cancer and basically there was no time to wait for treatment,” she said. “They said I needed to go have treatment right away.”
The following week, Keller and her family met with the entire breast cancer multispecialty team-doctors, surgeons and other specialists at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
“I wanted to know about being pregnant and going through chemotherapy and how it could hurt the baby and the long-term effects it could have,” Keller said.
Her oncologist, Amy VanderWoude, MD, said she’s only treated four or five pregnant women, but offered to contact them to see if they would be OK with her sharing their contact information with Keller.
Satisfied with what she learned from others who had been through it, Keller started chemotherapy treatments on May 1, 2017.
Two months later, on July 2, her son, Jack, entered the world.
“He was born six weeks early,” Keller said. “They took him at 34 weeks so they could give me a more toxic chemotherapy drug. He was in the neonatal ICU for six weeks to learn how to breathe, eat, suck and swallow. He was jaundiced, under bilirubin lights and on a CPAP machine. Other than that, he was completely healthy.”
Jack continues to be healthy, growing strong with no developmental issues.
“He’s a spitfire, let me tell you,” Keller said, laughing. “He’s definitely all boy. He keeps me on my toes, but he’s 100 percent healthy.”
Keller hopes to follow in his tiny footsteps and get healthy, too.
On November 21, Jayne Paulson, MD, a Spectrum Health breast care center surgeon, performed a bilateral mastectomy on Keller. Next, Keller underwent radiation treatments.
These days, she’s trying to regain strength while continuing treatments. She’s spending time outdoors with her family, riding motorcycles, attending car shows and visiting Traverse City and the family cottage on Big Pine Island Lake.
And, at the suggestion of Dr. VanderWoude, she started a blog about her war against cancer.
“I started from day 1,” she said. “Dr. VanderWoude suggested I do it to help with my coping. It’s a great coping mechanism when I’m having a bad day, to just write. It’s been the best thing ever for me.”