In February 2020, Shelly Battista was nursing her first daughter, Emilia, when she noticed a lump.
“I originally thought it was just a clogged milk duct,” Battista said.
She followed up with her doctor. At 34 years old, Battista was stunned by the diagnosis – triple negative breast cancer and the BRCA 1 mutation.
With no family history of cancer, Battista was concerned, not just for her health, but also for her future family.
“We were already talking about expanding our family. And so that was kind of my first question, how is this going to impact that?”
Battista and her husband, Robert, went to see Dr. Kara Goldman, medical director of Fertility Preservation at Northwestern Medicine.
“Chemotherapy saves lives, but it also takes fertility,” Goldman said.
“Chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cell and so that includes the cancer cells and this is why chemotherapy is so life-saving, but other rapidly dividing cells include the cells in the ovary that contain those eggs, that, you know, we are born with just a limited supply. And so if we lose those eggs during chemotherapy, those are not replenishable,” the doctor explained.
Before starting her chemotherapy treatments, Battista began the egg retrieval process and she was able to free eight embryos, or fertilized eggs, before chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.
“Knowing that she had this chance to conceive after all of this was a light at the end of the tunnel and, for so many patients, that’s how they view it,” Goldman said.
On December 9, 2020, Battista was declared cancer free, however the chemo damaged her ovaries, causing a condition where they stop working before age 40. The BRCA 1 mutation also increased Battista’s chances for ovarian cancer, so after consulting with her doctors, Battista opted to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
One year later, doctors cleared Battista for pregnancy. Supplemental hormones prepared her uterus for pregnancy. After two unsuccessful transfers, a third attempt worked.
An ultrasound confirmed that Shelly and Robert were having identical twin girls. “I think our jaws kind of dropped open, but I mean, seriously, such a blessing too,” Battista said.
Nina and Margot were delivered on December 9, 2022, exactly two years to the day that Shelly was declared cancer free.
Goldman visited the Battista family in the hospital after delivery, grateful that Shelly spoke up for her future family right away and that Illinois mandated insurance coverage of her fertility care.
“We are in one of the very few states where insurance often covers fertility preservation in urgent situations. There are only 12 states in the United States that have legislation mandating this,” Goldman said.
“Shelly’s care was actually covered by her insurance. She was covered for fertility preservation, as well as embryo transfers,” Goldman said. “I think it’s just so important for patients to know that this is an option, this is a very real option, and it works.”
Now home with her two newborn daughters and their three year old sister, Shelly and Robert Battista have the three children they always dreamed of, despite the cancer ordeal that took Shelly’s fertility.
“I think it’s so important that we advocate for not only our health, but also that you know our future,” Shelly Battista said.