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Chemo While Pregnant? L'Chaim!

Thursday, July 31, 2014 1:30 PM Comments (29)

There's a very important piece on Catholic Stand this week: Evangelizing for Life -- Chemo while pregnant.  Birgit Jones explains that her daughter Erika was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 20 weeks pregnant. Jones says

That she was given only two options – abortion followed by treatment or waiting until after birth for treatment – is typical of advice most frequently given across the country. 

Luckily, Jones' daughter is "a molecular biologist, Howard Hughes research scholar, and former forensic biologist," and so she had the confidence and know-how to discover that she didn't need to choose between killing her child or letting her cancer go untreated. Jones says:

What she found was that chemotherapy during pregnancy does not raise the risk of miscarriage or other problems. In fact, the oncologists who treated her at M.D. Anderson in Houston had been successfully using this method for over 20 years. Although these children continue to be closely monitored, there have been no incidents of detrimental effects to date. This option is as safe for the unborn child as that of no treatment. Even though our daughter was high risk for miscarriage (4 occurrences prior to her second live birth), her doctor assured her the option of chemotherapy treatment would not increase her risk.

According to Erika, “The maternal-fetal doctor I saw in Houston told me that the biggest ‘risk’ of chemo treatments while pregnant was the increased likelihood of early contractions. However, she again assured me that a) any time a pregnant woman is stressed, she’s likely to have contractions and b) those contractions are rarely productive”.

So there is a third option, at least some of the time.  Some chemotherapy drugs are thought to be harmful to a fetus during every stage of pregnancy, but many are not.Pregnant women have been succesfully treating their cancer in the second and third trimesters without harming their babies for over twenty years -- and yet this fact is far from common knowledge.  When we hear that a woman has cancer while pregnant, the first thought that comes to mind is that she has a horrible choice to make. Why is this? 

One problem is that, because cancer during pregnancy is relatively rare, a typical OB/GYN probably doesn't have much experience treating it, and so may not be up-to-date on treatment options. And among secular doctors, I suspect that they've simply been trained to see abortion as an easy out. Many people believe that, when there are two complicated situations, the baby is the one that we can always dispense with. More and more modern people are becoming comfortable with the idea of killing as a solution

Among religious pro-lifers, I'm afraid there is something else besides medical ignorance at work. Some Catholics are unconsciously wedded to the idea that God prefers us to suffer as much as possible, and that tragedy always elevates holiness. This attitude takes an especially strong among Catholics who, understandably, are on guard against every idea that sounds modern and utilitarian; and so they overcompensate by assuming that the faithful route is always the most painful one.

While it is true that, sooner or later, being faithful will bring us suffering, it is manifestly false that God somehow revels in human suffering (even when it's pro-life suffering).  I've discussed this idea before: we can become so enamored of the idea of martyrdom that we forget why martyrs do what they do. In "Bathwater Saints," I said

Let’s think about St. Gianna Molla.  A good many people believe that this woman’s greatness came in her eager, joyful acceptance of death in order to save her baby.  Not so.  It is true that she was willing to accept the risk of death when she refused the therapeutic hysterectomy that would have killed her unborn child.  And she did end up giving her life so that her baby could live.  But the whole time, she prayed and hoped and longed to live. She wasn’t devoted to being pro-life: she was devoted to her baby.  And she wanted to live, so that she could be with her baby and her husband and the rest of her beloved children.  She was pro-life:  she hoped for life in abundance, including her own.

The same is true, in a somewhat different way, for St. Maria Goretti.  Over and over, I’ve heard this saint praised as a holy girl who prized her viginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it.  And she did die as a result of defending her viginity.  But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell.  She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.  

This is what it looks like when someone is close to God:  they want to spare the person.  They are in love with life.  They are focused not on the idea of morality, but on the person whose life and safety (whether physical or spiritual) are at stake.

As Birgit Jones says in her article, let's spread the word that there is hope for pregnant women with cancer, because life is good. It's not the highest good, and physical life is temporary for all of us, no matter what therapies we pursue or turn down. But it is good, and worth preserving.

We are quick to point out that the secular modern world is in love with death; and so it is. But let's make sure that we, as Catholics who ought to know better, haven't fallen for a subtle variation on the same theme.  If we're going to call ourselves pro-life, this truth must be aways before us: life is good. L'Chaim! To life!

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.