When Jessica Storm was 28 weeks pregnant, she felt a lump on the top of one of her breasts. While she thought it was likely a clogged milk duct, she called her doctor. Her mom, Joan Berg, had breast cancer at ages 32 and 41, and Storm wasn’t taking any chances.
“Breast cancer would always be something that was on my mind,” Storm, 34, an account executive at an employee assistance program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, told TODAY. “I’ve never really heard of anyone getting cancer when they were pregnant.”
She had a sonogram and biopsy. Soon after, she received her diagnosis: triple negative breast cancer and doctors at UW Health Cancer Center at ProHealth Care wanted Storm to start chemotherapy immediately. Storm, who had experienced two pregnancy losses, worried about the baby.
“The whole pregnancy was terrifying because I have experienced two miscarriages,” she said. “When I got the diagnosis, I just thought to myself, ‘How could this be?’”
Her doctor, Dr. Christopher Hake, said cancer diagnoses during pregnancy are rare.
"It is unusual for women to get cancer while pregnant. If they get cancer while pregnant the most common cancer they get is breast cancer," the hematologist and oncologist at ProHealth Care told TODAY. "It has nothing to do with the pregnancy itself. Pregnancy does not increase your risk of breast cancer."
But finding it early, usually leads to better outcomes.
"Cancer — when it's caught early — is always curable. Breast cancer is very curable and the vast majority of breast cancer is cured and that's due to early detection," he said. "Early detection of all cancers should be our goal and obviously prevention of cancer."
For Storm, this would be the first of three cancer diagnoses. Even though she’s still undergoing treatment, she feels optimistic.
“No matter how bad life is for you, it will get better. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I have a very healthy baby. I have a beautiful life. Yeah, it does have some twists and turns in it but I'm overcoming them every single day.”
Chemotherapy while pregnant, then melanoma and a brain tumor
Doctors knew they couldn’t wait to start chemotherapy until July 18, 2018 when Storm was scheduled for an induction. But few things in Storm’s life followed her plans, including her delivery. While attending her baby shower, she experienced stomach pains. She thought she was thirsty, after all she was only 37 weeks pregnant.
“I was dehydrated because it was really hot,” she recalled. “My mom said, ‘You’re going to have the baby.' And I was like, ‘No, this is not the plan.’ And I started crying.”
But she thought to herself, “Let go and let God” and went to the hospital where she learned she was 4 centimeters dilated.
“I took a deep breath and put my faith in my medical team and my body and God and I just had to go with it,” she said.
She delivered a healthy girl, Josslyn, on July 1 and less than two weeks later, she restarted her chemotherapy, completing 11 rounds. While many new parents resent late night feedings and diapering, Storm has a unique take on them.
“I never complained about getting up in the middle of the night because I was alive,” she said. “I remember sitting with Josslyn and rocking her at like 2 in the morning and being so grateful for it.”
After chemotherapy, she underwent surgery in November and learned she had no sign of disease.
“Everything was going really well and I was just again picking up the pieces,” she said. “And then in August that's what I got diagnosed with melanoma.”
A doctor noticed a small spot on her back that she couldn’t even see and it turned out to be cancerous.
“Sure enough it comes back melanoma, stage 1,” she said.
While she infrequently used a tanning bed in college, she didn’t continue the bad habit. She tested positive for the BRCA gene, which makes her more likely to develop other cancers, she said. Hake agreed.
"That puts you at higher risk of developing the cancers that she's developed. So it's a higher risk of breast cancer and there's a higher risk of other cancers like ovarian cancer but also melanoma," he explained.
Soon after having the melanoma removed, she started experiencing headaches that didn’t subside with pain relievers. She thought the additional strain had caused her to feel achy.
“I would wake up with (headaches). They were always there,” Storm explained. “(I thought) it was just due to stress because I was juggling so many different things.”
Doctors recommended an MRI, as a precaution. The results were unbelievable: Storm had a golf ball sized tumor in her cerebellum and she needed surgery. Afterwards, doctors diagnosed her with stage 4 cancer: The tumor in the brain was triple negative breast cancer.
“How did this happen? How did I go from stage 2 to stage 4 in the blink of an eye,” she said. “I’m still getting used to saying that I got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.”
'We did it together.'
After surgery Storm began targeted chemotherapy treatments and oral chemotherapy that should end in September 2020 — a year after she started this treatment. Being a mother to an almost 2-year-old Josslyn has helped her.
“I always thought I was a patient person before, but now I’m super patient,” she said. “I learned the hard way that how you visualize your life might not work out that way. I’m prepared for the sharp turns.”
She and husband, David Storm, 38, have been renovating their new house and keeping as active as possible. She does tire easily but finds that the support from David and her mom, whom she calls her “role model,” bolsters her strength.
“I constantly said this entire journey, I didn’t beat cancer, we beat cancer,” she said. “We did it together.”
Storm repeats a motto to herself that helps her feel tough when it all feels overwhelming: "Cancer is not the storm. I am the Storm." And, she continues celebrating life and finding joy in small things.
“If you got one life to live you have make the best of it,” Storm said. “I just like to be in the moment and I appreciate all those little things.”