Coeur d'Alene woman faces cancer while pregnant

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) It was a beautiful sunny day at Coeur d'Alene Cellars on her wedding day, Sept. 3, 2011, and Linsey Mattison felt oddly uncomfortably in her gown.

"My dress was so tight, I felt like I couldn't breathe," the then 32-year-old lawyer and Coeur d'Alene High School graduate said this week. Other than that, it was one of the best days of her life.

She said that incredible discomfort and difficulty breathing that day was likely the first hint something was seriously wrong with her health. She didn't know it at the time, but a cancerous mass was rapidly growing inside her chest and pressing up against her lungs.

Days after the wedding, she began having chest pains, which hardly made sense for a fit young woman who exercised regularly and ate healthy.

"It was really scary," she said. She called her mom.

"What did it feel like when dad had a heart attack?" Linsey recalled asking her mother.

She saw a doctor, but he couldn't pinpoint the problem. So, she packed lots of pain reliever for the honeymoon.

She and her new husband, Scott Sowinski, who was 29 at the time, began trying to have a baby. After the wedding, Linsey took Scott's last name.

"My first day back at work and I came home and she surprised me with a positive test," said Scott, who works at Architects West in Coeur d'Alene.

Their child, a girl, Lena, was born in May after 37 weeks of pregnancy, weighing 5 pounds 2 ounces.

But before Linsey knew about her cancer, she attributed any symptoms of her sickness to the pregnancy.

Then she developed a horrible dry cough that wouldn't go away.

A chest X-ray was done after Thanksgiving. Her doctor called after 8 p.m. the night of the X-ray, and they knew right away something was wrong.

"There's definitely something on your X-ray," the doctor said. That was the first time a doctor mentioned the word "mass," which led to thoughts of a possible cancer.

Then a CT scan showed a softball-sized tumor, which was crowding a lung, and fluid was accumulating around her heart. Blood work confirmed the problem.

And so just two months after getting the exciting news about the pregnancy, the young family learned on Nov. 29 that Linsey had a type of lymphoma. Officially, she was diagnosed with primary mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma. Basically, she had cancer of the blood and lymph nodes, they said.

"I was pushed to the front of the line," she said. "That week was a major blur."

The mass was doubling in size every six weeks.

Naturally, an immediate concern was the child growing inside Linsey.

Would they have to abort the pregnancy to save Linsey?

How would they battle the rapidly growing mass while the baby developed?

A perinatologist, a specialist for high-risk pregnancies, told Linsey and Scott "positive outcomes" are possible under the circumstances.

"We always make the joke, 'Oh, you can't have Motrin (during pregnancy), but chemo is fine,'" said Scott. "During pregnancy there are always so many things you can't do or have."

The chances of abnormalities, they were told, weren't any greater than another pregnancy.

Dr. Douglas Barber, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, said women have been treated successfully during pregnancy for a multitude of cancers, including, among others, breast, cervical, ovarian, and Linsey's case of lymphoma.

"The specific difficulty with lymphoma and pregnancy is that many of the symptoms of lymphoma also can be mistaken as normal symptoms of pregnancy such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and anemia," said Barber. "Physicians are often slow to order imaging for fear of exposing the pregnancy to radiation. This often leads to women having a delay of their diagnosis."

The rarity of such cases make developing a "care plan" difficult, he said.

Chemotherapy stops rapid division of cells to fight cancer.

"Unfortunately, the pregnancy itself is full of rapidly dividing cells, so chemotherapy may have a spectrum of effects on the developing fetus," Barber said.

Depending on when chemotherapy is given, effects on the developing child can include birth defects, stillbirth, low birth weight, premature birth, or impaired functional development.

"Because there are so many variables involved all cases have unique outcomes both positive and negative," Barber said.

Linsey would start her second trimester with chemotherapy, and would go back for more every 21 days.

She knew that everything she went through, the baby also would go through. She cut way down on her level of pain-killer use.

After her first two chemotherapy treatments, the tumor began shrinking. She continued to get similar encouraging reports.

Still, "I couldn't wait to get the baby out of me, so that her risks of exposure were gone," she said.

After Linsey's sixth chemotherapy cycle, she was induced into labor in Spokane.

"That experience was probably the best of anything" Scott and Linsey went through in the past year, Linsey said.

Like all new parents, Scott and Linsey had a trying first week of parenthood, but it felt normal and positive.

"It's been the highest of highs, and lowest of lows in one year," said Linsey.

Lena's immune system, however, was seriously weakened by the chemotherapy they soon discovered. She was born with no B-cells. Now, though, she is on track to recover and be a normal, healthy baby.

"It's tough. We're brand new parents, but we can't show our baby to anybody," to protect her from infection while her immune system gains strength, said Scott.

For Linsey, it's not clear yet if she, herself, is out of the woods.

The cancer has been shrinking fast, but she must travel to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., to get another medical opinion about what treatment will be required next. She also plans to visit doctors in Seattle.

"My status isn't really clear cut," she said.

A scan of the tumor site this month showed some abnormal activity.

"The next line of treatment is a bone-marrow transplant," Linsey said.

She'll find out if that's necessary after getting medical opinions in Arizona and Seattle.

"We're very optimistic that the mass keeps shrinking," she said.

As best friends, Linsey and Scott said, they have only grown stronger in their relationship through the challenging first year.

"Little did we know how quickly we would be putting our vows to the test," Linsey said.

"We are stronger coming out of it, but it was definitely a test," Scott said. "Usually new couples are fighting over where to put the toothpaste."

Lena has been a source of strength for them both, both inside and outside the womb.

"She is our miracle baby, in our minds," Scott said. "What she has already been through, just to be here now, you can't help but sit back and be so proud of her."