Let's cut to the good part first. Fashion editor and breast cancer survivor Rebecca Russell is currently pregnant in her third trimester with a baby on the way. Looking back, the road to motherhood was a long one. At age 31, a time when she was starting to think about creating a family of her own, she had a feeling something was not right and her health demanded her immediate attention instead. In 2019, she was in the throws of a breast cancer diagnosis, recovery plan, and treatments to preserve her fertility in between. A year of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation ensued. And today, as a survivor and soon-to-be new mom, she's looking back and sharing the wisdom she learned along the way.
We caught up with her in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This month, Perelel will be donating a portion of proceeds to Chick Mission, a nonprofit that supports young women diagnosed with cancer looking to preserve their fertility. Her POV on listening to your intuition, pregnancy after cancer, and why we all should care about creating access to fertility preservation.
Read on below.
Perelel: Would you be able to share a bit of background on your cancer diagnosis? How did you find out and where were you in your life at the time?
Rebecca Russell: Let’s just say that if I didn’t trust my intuition, and ignore everyone saying I was being a complete hypochondriac, then my story would be very different today. I knew I had cancer. My body was signaling to me in different areas to where my tumor was. I was getting stabbing pains in my chest, which I attributed to anxiety and my body's signals. After not letting go of these stabbing pains, which I needed to get to the bottom of, I eventually was offered a mammogram as I also mentioned to my doctor that I had felt a lump in my right breast a few weeks prior. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it as I have dense breast tissue and have had benign cysts before. But two weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
P: How did you feel about motherhood at the time? Where was your headspace?
RR: My mind has always been on motherhood eventually. I remember the main thing that made me cry when I met with the oncology and surgical team right after my diagnosis was being told I would have to delay childbearing and my diagnosis may affect this ever happening. I had just turned 31, and had been with my husband for nearly 10 years. So this was a huge blow. We were getting ready! Though I knew the task at hand was to save me, to heal me, and I knew I had to stay focused on that. But my life path had motherhood in it always. I could see it in my future. So this news completely crushed me.
P: How did your treatment timeline unfold?
RR: I was diagnosed at age 31 in 2019.
Diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, stage 2.
I underwent egg harvesting to store embryos for future use.
Lumpectomy surgery where they found that I had clear margins, a smaller tumor than what was once thought, and no lymph node spread. My staging went down to 1B.
First chemotherapy. TC x four, which was only four infusions every three weeks. I did hair preservation during each infusion.
Started radiation. Because I had a lumpectomy I needed radiation.
Final radiation. Wow, what a year…
P: Did your doctors discuss fertility preservation with you? If so, at what point?
RR: Yes, we did egg harvesting right after my diagnosis as we didn’t know yet what my treatment plan looked like. We ended up harvesting six embryos from one retrieval, which is great, but in 2021 my husband and I were going down the convoluted path of surrogacy and unfortunately received the news that five were abnormal.
The plan was to do another round of egg harvesting. But instead, my doctors and I discussed temporarily coming off my medication to get pregnant myself.
P: Wow! What a major decision to stop your medication in order to get pregnant. What was it like getting to that moment?
RR: It wasn’t easy. It took me some time. I was on my treatment for two years and throughout those two years my head was in surrogacy mode. Which took my husband a long time to come to terms with. I was so knee deep in my mental recovery process, I couldn’t even bare to think of me coming off my treatment. I was terrified.
"Coming off my treatment temporarily to get pregnant, was a fresh start for me. I felt free again."
But time is a healer, and over the last two years I have moved into a new phase of survivorship. I don’t wake up everyday with a dark cancer cloud over my head and I knew in some ways to help with that process of psychological recovery I would have to start a fresh. Coming off my treatment temporarily to get pregnant, was a fresh start for me. I felt free again.
P: Did insurance cover IVF for you?
RR: No! Not even a sight bit.
P: The thing that strikes me the most about your story is how unwavering you were in listening to your intuition—something that's not always easy to do. What helped you listen to your inner voice?
RR: Well, I think I learnt the hard way, unfortunately, from the strongest person I know. I grew up with my mother having cancer three times. She had colon cancer twice and endometrial cancer once, and she’s fighting fit (not without health complications) today at 68-years-old. I watched her battle so much in her life, and I think it really scared me.
About 10 years ago, my sister and I were tested for the genetic mutation that my mother has, which unfortunately, we both also have. It predisposes us to also get the cancers that my mum has had. This is called the MSH2 gene, or lynch syndrome, which means I’ve had to have regular colonoscopies, endoscopies, endometrial biopsies and ovarian ultrasounds since I was 26-years-old. So I have always been aware of avoiding health neglect, and in many ways have always been scared of what could happen. Maybe you could call me a hypochondriac, but it saved my life. Breast cancer is not connected to this genetic mutation, so it was a completely sporadic, unlucky diagnosis.
When my mother was going through her own diagnosis, she first went to the doctor for discomfort in her bowel and was told she was too overweight and to go on a diet. She wasn't content with that response, so she went back and they ended up finding a tumor the size of an orange in her colon. So, I’ve known I’ve had to always follow my inner voice, and not give up on what I believe.
"I’ve known I’ve had to always follow my inner voice, and not give up on what I believe."
P: You are now pregnant—congratulations! When you reflect back on your road to parenthood, what stands out to you most?
RR: Thank you!! Once again, my intuition. My doctor told me IVF would likely be the only way I would conceive, but I didn’t listen. She told me that the IUD I had placed, was not causing my ovarian cysts and my lack of follicle count. But once again, I didn’t listen. I went ahead and removed it, only to find I had more follicles and no cysts two weeks later. She also didn’t recommend IUI (intrauterine insemination) and instead wanted us to go straight for IVF. I trusted my gut that there was another way. We got pregnant with IUI on our first try two weeks after I removed my IUD.
P: This month at Perelel, we are supporting the organization Chick Mission in their work to make fertility preservation for young women with cancer more accessible. Why is it such an important issue?
RR: I truly love this, it makes my heart sing!
Having cancer at a young age is already soul crushing, but to then have your future dictated to you, is evil. I was in complete disbelief when I found out my fertility could be in jeopardy after having breast cancer. That's when the reality of my diagnosis really hit home. You are so hopeful that you can get this over and done with as soon as possible, but the long term treatment plan was a big blow. Pre-menopausal young women everywhere are dealing with a diagnosis and the treatment news that follows, and it is ruining their future plans. That is why this organization is so important.
P: What are you looking forward to most about motherhood?
RR: Hopefully having a relationship with my child like my mother had with me. She’s been my best friend since day one, and I can’t wait to share a similar bond with my offspring.
Perelel is proud to support Chick Mission in their work to provide more women with oncofertility services and lasting change in legislation. This October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we'll be donating a percentage of all proceeds to the organization.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Perelel.