- Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women, mothers among them.
- Parents who go through cancer treatment face additional challenges, from managing children’s emotions to guilt over not being the parent they imagined and anxiety about the future.
- A lack of protocols and research surrounding breast cancer during pregnancy leaves expectant parents without a standard method of treatment.
April Perreras breastfed each of her children for a year, and it was hard for them to hear that she was going to have her breasts removed. “They were so attached to my breasts, even at even at age 5, even at 10,” says Perreras, who had a bilateral mastectomy in 2022 to treat an invasive form of breast cancer.
Breast cancer was something she had to navigate as a parent, managing treatment schedules, childcare, her own stress and worry, and the emotions of her family all at the same time. She found a way to help her children understand what she was going through, telling them, “I’ll still be me, just no nipples, like your Barbie, right?”
Some of them are parents or people who plan to start a family soon. Yet there’s a lack of information and research available for people managing diagnosis and treatment while building and raising families.
The realm of options for fertility preservation “wasn’t discussed” when Whitney Evans Fuston, the director of an early childhood development program in California, was initially treated for stage 1 breast cancer 9 years ago at age 31.
She froze embryos due to ongoing treatment and was enjoying the early stages of surrogate pregnancy 5 years ago when she found out she herself was pregnant — something doctors had told her wasn’t possible.
Fuston shared her story in a recent Healthline roundtable exploring the experiences of mothers who go through breast cancer treatment. The host, Tess Christine, a beauty influencer and entrepreneur, was shocked to find she had breast cancer after weaning her 9-month-old son off breastfeeding last year, and is now a leading advocate for mothers going through breast cancer.
Fuston, Christine, and Perreras were joined by Washington, D.C. mother Niya Kight, who also battled the disease while parenting — in her case, while pregnant.
The advocates who took part covered treatment, emotions, and how to parent through a difficult diagnosis. They shared the most vulnerable parts of their stories with the hope that their experiences will equip other mothers — as well as healthcare providers, partners, and families — with the knowledge to face this experience.
When Kight found out she had breast cancer in November of 2019, she was 12 weeks pregnant with her second child. According to the National Cancer Institute, this occurs in only
Her oncologist had never treated anyone who was pregnant. The teaching hospital where she received treatment paraded students through the room. “They were in complete shock and trying to learn at the same time. I always said I was a guinea pig,” she recalls.
Kight chose to receive chemotherapy for her cancer during pregnancy, a complicated medical decision. In the end, given the data, she felt comfortable with her decision. “This is my body. I’m going to try to do what’s best because this is unknown.”
She likens the experience to a battle of life and death taking place inside her body, “trying to grow a human and trying to save myself.”
Fuston, who was first diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer before she was a parent, also found herself facing a similar dilemma. Diagnosed with stage 1 cancer at 31 and a recurrence of stage 4 cancer 3 years later, she froze her eggs in hopes of starting a family after treatment.
Just a few weeks after successfully transferring her embryo to a surrogate, Fuston found herself pregnant as well. She had been told she couldn’t conceive after chemotherapy, so she was completely shocked. “I was a pioneer in this, which, you know, nobody wants to be a medical pioneer.”
Fuston had no evidence of disease for several years and chose to pause treatment during her pregnancy. While this is a different choice than Kight, both women say there are simply not enough standards and protocols for treating pregnant patients with breast cancer.
Options such as
Fuston showed no evidence of disease throughout her pregnancy and is now parenting two 4.5-year-old boys born just 5 weeks apart. Anxiety was high the entire pregnancy since, as she points out, “in cancer world, when something changes in your body, that’s a bad thing.”
She was monitored closely and progressed through a healthy delivery.
“I just set little goals for myself: ‘I’m going to make it to 12 weeks. I’m going to make it to 25 weeks. I’m going to make it to 35 weeks,’ and I continue to do that. ‘I’m going to make it to their first birthday,’” Fuston explained.
She accomplished those goals and now is facing a new first: “I am going to make it to them going to kindergarten.”
Going through breast cancer affects every aspect of parenting, says Perreras, who lives in the Philippines. She’s a mom of two girls and was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive lobular at age 39.
As a former nurse and current fitness enthusiast, she worked hard to keep her body in the best shape possible through three surgeries and 22 rounds of radiation — also dealing with loss of conditioning during treatments — so she could remain an active parent.
She and her husband were open and honest with their kids about each step of the process, but it still caused anxiety for their daughters — particularly her double mastectomy. Showing that she was back to lifting her weights was reassuring for her children.
For Christine, breastfeeding was how she found the lump that was eventually diagnosed as breast cancer. When she was weaning her 9-month-old son, she noticed a mass that had not been there before. Despite the many changes that occur through pregnancy and breastfeeding, Christine suspected something was off this time, though she was initially told it was probably just a cyst.
“It was all very scary, being a first-time mom, but then also going through breast cancer. I really had no one to turn to,” she says. That’s why she’s become passionate about sharing her cancer journey on social media so that others don’t feel as alone.
Fuston says that she experienced guilt over the things she wasn’t able to do with her kids due to her disease. “I was actually able to breastfeed both of my kiddos on one breast for about 8 weeks,” an incredible achievement, she says, but even so, “there’s definitely mom guilt in that.”
Kight also struggled to lift her kids due to movement restrictions from her unilateral mastectomy. She says it was hard to let go of the idea of motherhood she had planned and parent in her current reality. Breastfeeding proved difficult after her surgery: “That was a total disaster because I put way too much pressure on myself.”
Donated breast milk sustained her infant, and she’s managed to let go of the mom guilt she felt for being unable to continue nursing.
A note on mom guilt
“My mom guilt started before my kids were even implanted, when we decided to use a surrogate,” says Fuston. She had thoughts like: “I’m not going to feel the baby kick. The baby is not going to know my voice. Is he going to resent that?”
Nearly 5 years on, she says, “It makes no difference — the child that I birthed versus the child that I didn’t.”
A 2021 review found that the guilt of failing to live up to unattainable motherhood ideals causes stress and that maternal guilt is multifaceted, sometimes felt as a physical sensation.
In the field of perinatal psychology, experts emphasize the concept of the “good enough” mother, conceived by pediatrician Dr. D. W. Winnicott. Motherhood is not a pursuit of perfection, experts say, and bumps in the road create resilience.
Snuggling children against a mother’s breast is something that continues long past weaning, and to lose that was hard for Perreras’ girls. She showed them her scars and bandages to normalize her healing process. She compared her reconstructed breasts without nipples to their Barbie dolls so it felt familiar rather than scary.
“Your mom can beat this,” she told them. “Your mom can go back to the way she was, even after surgery.”
Fuston says she adjusted her expectations around how parenting would look. “I have a whole Rolodex of horizontal parenting… what can you do where you’re still lying in bed?”
She also made a stop sign to keep by her bed after procedures to remind her children not to taking a flying leap onto her. When she was taking treatment through a chest port, they called it her “robot part.”
Aside from the physical toll, the toll on mental well-being has been one of the hardest parts for these four mothers. While Fuston looks forward to her boys starting kindergarten, she doesn’t plan further yet. “I try not to think about their high school graduation or them getting married. I don’t think that far ahead.”
All of the women also say the physical changes in their bodies had profound effects on their mental health. Kight says before her diagnosis, she did not feel very attached to her breasts, but once she had her mastectomy, she struggled with self-image. “Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones. It was just the most devastating thing to look in the mirror,” she recalls.
A friend challenged Kight to look at her body while repeating positive affirmations. Eventually, the sight wasn’t so devastating anymore.
Perreras supported her mental health by strengthening her physical health. Exercise has always been therapeutic for her, and that has proven true throughout her breast cancer journey. She told herself, “I had to prep my mental health. I had to prep my mind, exercise will be my weapon.”
Christine takes everything step-by-step so that it’s manageable and tells others to celebrate the small wins. The times when she couldn’t lift her son were devastating, but she focuses on highlights when she can.“It amplifies things. It just makes the little small moments bigger.”
Coping skills to try
The mothers who took the time to share with Healthline offered some coping skills that were helpful to them and might be helpful to others facing a similar situation:
- Seek support from professionals as well as others walking a similar path. Whether through online groups, in-person friendships, or support networks at local hospitals, the journey of parenting through breast cancer is one that requires peer support. Many people benefit from treatment from a licensed mental health professional.
- Allow yourself to grieve. All of the mothers Healthline spoke to expressed grief about their illness, the loss of their breasts, and the picture of motherhood they had planned. By giving yourself permission to drive hard things, you also allow yourself to heal.
- Advocate for yourself without hesitation. No one knows your body better than you — you’re the expert. Each of the women participating in this discussion had to fight for the treatment that worked best for their family, which was different for each mother.
Healthline would like to thank the participants of “Navigating Breast Cancer as a Mom” for their involvement:
Tess Christine is an entrepreneur and advocate from Wisconsin who has built a following of 2.3 million people on her YouTube channel. Following the birth of her son, now 1 and a half, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2022 and has shared her journey with her followers across her various platforms, acting as host for Healthline’s breast cancer roundtable.
Tess is passionate about advocating for early detection and advancing understanding in the medical community.
Whitney Evans Fuston is an early learning nonprofit director in California. She was first diagnosed stage 1 when she was 31; 3 years later, it came back at stage 4. Determined to have children, Whitney and her husband froze embryos before chemotherapy, and when chemo was completed, they found a surrogate. A few weeks after they transferred, they found out Whitney was pregnant, too. She remained “No Evidence of Disease” the entire pregnancy and now has a pair of 4.5-year-olds born 5 weeks apart.
Find Whitney on Instagram @whitfuston.
Niya Kight was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in November 2019 while 12 weeks pregnant. Niya chose to view the diagnosis as her rebirth and shared that “she would rise healthier and stronger than ever after this spiritual transformation.” Niya has done just that as she focused inwardly to make changes to improve her life, learned to accept help, and shared her vulnerability and experience with others.
Niya is passionate about connecting with and supporting other parents diagnosed with cancer. Niya is a homeschooling, solo parent of two magnificent children.
Find Niya on Instagram @niyaspurpose.
April Perreras is a former nurse turned stay-at-home mom of two girls and an entrepreneur. She’s a fitness enthusiast and a breast cancer survivor and advocate. She was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma last year at 39 and has undergone three breast surgeries and 22 rounds of radiation and was declared NED last November. Throughout her battle, she continued to exercise and used it as her biggest weapon pre-surgery, post-surgery, and even during her treatment. She continues to advocate for early detection and uses her social media platforms to share her story and be a guiding light to other women, especially mothers.
Find April on Instagram @briesmum.