Heather Garigen's Story

Heather Garigen overcomes cancer while pregnant.

Heather GarigenHeather and TJ Garigen were looking forward to the birth of their third child when they received the most disturbing news of their lives.

“I went to the obstetrician for my first prenatal visit,” says Heather. “He found a lump in my breast. And it turned out to be cancer.”

Heather’s first thoughts were for her unborn baby. She asked her obstetrician, Dr. William Harvey, who she should see. He referred her to the Wilmot Cancer Center. An appointment was set up for the very next day with Dr. Kristin Skinner, a surgical oncologist at the Wilmot Cancer Center.

“Dr. Skinner was very straightforward with me,” says Heather. “She told me, ‘You don’t need to make a choice between your health and your baby. We can treat you. We’ve done it before.’”

Heather’s cancer was very aggressive—and rare. It had not been evident in a routine exam just a few months before, but it had already progressed to stage II.

Dr. Skinner assembled a team of doctors to work on Heather’s case, including medical oncologist Dr. Alissa Huston and Dr. Loralei Thornburg, a specialist in high-risk pregnancies. The team created a plan to aggressively treat Heather’s cancer while protecting her unborn baby’s health.

The first step in the plan was a lumpectomy, performed by Dr. Skinner. It was the next stage, though, that created the greatest concerns for Heather.

“She really needed chemotherapy,” says Dr. Huston, Heather’s medical oncologist. “That’s a very scary thing to think about when you’re pregnant. We’re always hearing about what you should or shouldn’t eat while you’re expecting. But this wasn’t food, it was chemotherapy.”

Fortunately, Dr. Huston had previous experience with treating cancer in pregnant women. She was familiar with a large body of research about the safety of chemotherapy agents when delivered with the right timing during pregnancy. Dr. Huston also consulted with other experts across the country while collaborating with Dr. Thornburg at URMC.

“We were in constant communication about Heather’s case,” says Dr. Huston. “I would contact Dr. Thornburg with a question, and she would literally get back to me within seconds, saying, ‘Yes, go ahead, no problem.’”

Heather’s chemotherapy regimen lasted 16 weeks, ending just one month before the birth of her baby. Throughout her treatment, Dr. Thornburg kept close watch on both the baby’s health and Heather’s.

“She had an amazing pregnancy,” says Dr. Thornburg. “Her baby grew well. And Heather really did fabulous. Like many pregnant women who receive chemotherapy, Heather felt less nausea than non-pregnant women.”

Despite all the tests and assurances, Heather and TJ were nervous as they neared her due date. Heather was induced at Strong Memorial Hospital, with an uncommonly large team on hand.

“There was a huge sense of relief when Molly was born, from everyone in the room—which was about 10 people,” recalls Heather. “She was healthy. She was crying. She looked great! That’s when the real relief hit me.”

Heather, TJ, and their other two girls were able to relax and enjoy Molly for several weeks prior to the final stage of Heather’s cancer treatment: radiation therapy. After seven weeks of radiation, Heather’s cancer treatments were complete, and she was able to focus on her family and her new baby.

“She is the best baby!” says Heather. “She’s sleeping great, she’s eating great. She’s happy, and she’s healthy.”

Heather’s health is exceptional, too. Just seven months after the birth of Molly, Heather and TJ completed a Tough Mudder—a 12-mile run and obstacle course event set up by the British Special Forces.

“For me, cancer has been a blessing,” says Heather. “I look at my family in a whole new light now. It’s wonderful to have that appreciation for everything in life a little bit more.”

“I have four robust, energetic women in my life,” adds TJ. “And Wilmot gave me that.”