October 16, 2023

Navigating a cancer diagnosis while pregnant

Andrea Moskol standing in a yard with her two children
Andrea Moskal with her children, Josephine and Jonah.

Andrea Moskal was in the process of weaning her 16-month-old son, Jonah, when she noticed an odd lump in her breast in January 2021.

Moskal, a registered nurse with UW Health, assumed it was nothing serious, but she still mentioned it to her OB/GYN during a routine check-up. At the time, she was about 16 weeks pregnant with her second child. An ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy confirmed that Moskal had stage IIb invasive ductal carcinoma.

“Never once did I actually think it would be cancer,” she said, given her lack of any family history of breast cancer.

Moskal remembered feeling overwhelmed by the conversations she was having with her care team. Though she was an experienced nurse, her specialty was transplant patient care, not oncology, so she still had a learning curve.

“Even as a medical professional, it was overwhelming. I just remember collapsing,” she said. “Like, I’m a nurse in the medical field, 15 years running, and I’m overwhelmed with this information. I don’t know how somebody goes through a cancer diagnosis without a medical background.”

Within a couple of weeks, Moskal started treatments at UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center. She felt relieved that her care team created a treatment plan that would focus on the safety of her baby. She began four cycles of chemotherapy, with treatments spaced out every three weeks. She also had surgery in May 2021 to remove her breast lump as well as several lymph nodes.

She then had a five week break in treatment before having her daughter, Josephine, on July 1, 2021. Josephine’s arrival was ushered in at 39 weeks so that Moskal could continue her cancer treatments.

“I had a brief 9 to 10 day recovery from child birth before I was back in chemotherapy for weekly Taxol for 12 treatments,” Moskal said.

After chemotherapy, Moskal went through 28 sessions of radiation and finished treatment just before Christmas 2021. She has been cancer-free since then.

The harsh side effects of treatment, coupled with worrying about her baby’s development, were physically and emotionally difficult for Moskal.

“It wasn’t until that five-week break (before Josephine’s birth) that I thought, ‘Oh I can finally enjoy my pregnancy,’ but then that’s when it just kind of came down on me: the madness and the sadness of it all,” she said. “Because (during treatment) you’re just head down trying to get through it all, but then when I had that time off, then it’s like, oh, my pregnancy was kind of tarnished a little bit by this.”

Moskal still deals with side effects from her treatment, including neuropathy that gets worse at night. She decided to switch from her long hours working with transplant patients and became a nurse in the UW Health Breast Clinic.

“There definitely was worry of this job being too close to my own experience (as a breast cancer patient) but at the same time I don’t feel like those emotions will go away, and I’ve always been an emotional person,” she said.

Learning a new field of expertise has also been a welcome challenge for Moskal, and her personal experience with cancer makes her very mindful of how she interacts with patients. She appreciates Carbone Cancer Center’s expertise and focus on each patient’s unique needs.

“Every person is an individual,” she said. It’s not cookie cutter, not like you have this kind of cancer so you get this. To watch and be a part of these medical oncologists’ decisions of treatments, they’re taking into account the whole person, and it’s insanely inspiring.”