In May 2020, Shelly Battista received what she calls a "terrifying" breast cancer diagnosis that led to a double mastectomy and the removal of her ovaries. But, two years after being declared cancer-free, she gave birth to twins thanks to recent advances in fertility medicine.
Before the diagnosis, Battista went back to work in February after giving birth to her daughter Emelia. While pumping at the office, she noticed a lump in her breast. At first, she thought it was a clogged milk duct but became more concerned when it didn't go away.
With no family history of breast cancer and no known risk factors at the time, Battista's evaluation was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So it wasn't until May that she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which tends to grow quickly and doesn't respond to treatments commonly used for other types of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Battista, who was 34 at the time, also learned that she has genetic risk factors that raise her risk for ovarian cancer.
With a 6-month-old baby at home and hoping for more down the line, Battista and her husband, Robert, felt like "we were just starting our life together, and we get this shocking news," she told NBC's Kate Snow in a March 20 segment on the TODAY show.
Knowing the Chicago couple had dreams of a big family, Dr. Kara Goldman, a reproductive endocrinologist and medical director of fertility preservation at Northwestern Fertility and Reproductive Medicine, advised them to start fertility treatments before chemotherapy.
The type of "chemotherapy that is used in young patients with triple-negative breast cancer is very toxic to the ovaries," Goldman told TODAY. “We started her fertility preservation journey two days later. She started medications and, two weeks later, she had eight frozen embryos,” Goldman said.
Shelly Battista underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. And, with her risk factors for other cancers, she ultimately had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, as well.
One year after treatment, the Battistas were ready for their next journey
Without ovaries or fallopian tubes, Shelly Battista's pregnancy would be a little different from her last. But her uterus was intact, and she was healthy enough to go through with the pregnancy.
"The ovaries and the uterus function very independently of each other," Goldman explained. "In Shelly’s case, because she did not have ovaries producing hormones, we were able to provide her the hormones necessary for pregnancy."
While the first two embryo transfers were unsuccessful, the third one worked. Goldman "called me herself personally (with the news)," Shelly Battista recalled. "We were both ecstatic and crying and yelling."
For Robert Battista, "this was the cherry on top," he said. "It was just awesome. We were going to have another kid, Shelly's healthy, everything was behind us at that point."
But they were even more pleasantly surprised to learn at their first ultrasound appointment that the Battistas would be having not one, but two new babies. They'd only implanted one embryo, but it split into identical twins in the uterus, something that only has a 1% chance of happening, Goldman said.
The twins, Nina and Margot, were born on Dec. 9, 2022, also the two-year anniversary of the day Shelly Battista was declared cancer-free.
"It's like the best celebration of Shelly's cancer journey. It's like, you've beaten cancer, and now here's this extra love you get on top of it," Robert Battista said. "It will be the most important day of the year in our family."
Today, the Battista household is full of "lots of laughs, lots of cries and lots of laundry," Shelly Battista said. "It’s chaotic, but it’s perfect."