Young breast cancer survivor welcomes miracle babies

October 27, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

All children are miracles in a way. Shelly Battista's twins — who were born two years to the day after she celebrated becoming cancer free — are truly medical miracles.

At 34, when Battista was still nursing her first child, she discovered a lump in her breast that she initially assumed was a clogged duct. Following a whirlwind of tests including an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy, Battista was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in May 2020; her daughter Emilia was just 8 months old.

With no family history of breast cancer, Battista and her husband Robert were caught completely off guard. "We were shocked and devastated and kind of went through a grieving process," she said.

But in her first meeting with NorthShore breast cancer specialist and expert surgeon Catherine Pesce, MD, Battista felt like she had a plan in place and she knew what it would take to beat the cancer.

"Dr. Pesce walked us through everything, explained what the treatment would look like and how it would all happen." said Battista. "She really calmed my nerves."

Triple negative breast cancer means there are no estrogen or progesterone receptors in the cancer cells, and the cells don't make the HER2 protein. It is the most aggressive type of breast cancer. Genetic testing revealed that Battista carries the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which put her at elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

"Most women who get cancer are around the age of 60, but because she was so young and carried the BRCA1 mutation, her risk of getting another cancer later in life was real, so she had a very well-defined path of treatment," explained Dr. Pesce, who also connected Battista to medical oncologist Douglas Merkel, MD.

Battista would undergo a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and removal of her fallopian tubes and ovaries. But first she had an even more pressing issue to address. "We knew we wanted more children and we had already talked about when we would start trying again," she said.

"Whenever I meet a young woman and I think chemo might be part of their treatment process I immediately think about fertility and the prospect of freezing eggs. It's a tough conversation, but she wanted more children," said Dr. Pesce, who refers patients to a select group of fertility specialists.

As Battista's cancer was growing, she had just four weeks to go through the process of having her eggs removed, and embryos frozen before she began 12 rounds of chemotherapy.

"It was an integral part of my treatment and my team at NorthShore knew it was important to me," said Battista, who had her mastectomy surgery with Dr. Pesce and plastic surgeon Mark Sisco, MD, at Evanston Hospital in December 2020. All of her treatment happened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic so Battista's husband could only serve as her driver, unable to be with her at the hospital.

Battista remained remarkably upbeat throughout her treatment, despite some debilitating rounds of chemotherapy. "I knew I just had to keep checking off boxes to get through the process," she said. "If I didn’t have Amelia it would have been much harder."

While Battista's tumor was quite large, it was completely destroyed by the chemotherapy and there was no cancer left at the time of her surgery, which was a very good sign for her prognosis, explained Dr. Pesce.

"My nurses, Dr. Pesce and Dr. Merkel were all so positive and helped me get through," said Battista.

By the end of November 2021, Battista was cleared to begin embryo transfers in the hope of having another child. After two unsuccessful attempts, her third embryo implant was successful and came with an added bonus. On her first ultrasound, Battista and her husband learned she was pregnant with twins.

She was monitored quite closely especially in the early weeks, but was fortunate to have an easy pregnancy with no complications. On Dec. 9, 2022, Nina and Margot were born and Emilia had two beautiful, healthy sisters.

"I was just so, so happy for her," said Dr. Pesce. "I still keep the birth announcement for the twins by my computer. She went from feeling so hopeless to having these miracle babies. It's truly remarkable. She was so calm and went through everything with such grace, taking every step in stride and staying optimistic."

Battista shares another bond with Dr. Pesce, who also has twins. "I think I'll be a little sad not to see her and Dr. Merkel so often, they have been such an integral part of my team," said Battista.

Breast cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at Edward-Elmhurst Health partner with you every step of the way. Learn more.

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