Saving Two Lives Vanessa Mendoza

Vanessa Mendoza, resident of South Gate, California, was only 27 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020.

“My family history with breast cancer is long,” she said. “My aunts and sister have all had it. So, when I first felt a lump, I was scared.”

Adding to Vanessa’s fear was the fact that she was also 24 weeks pregnant. So, the first step in her journey to being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive and deadly form of the disease that requires chemotherapy, was a trip to her OB/GYN to determine the implications for her baby.

Because Vanessa was pregnant, the first breast surgeon she visited for treatment would not take her case. “He mentioned that he felt it was too risky,” Vanessa explained. “So, he referred me to another surgeon and then a third surgeon, and that’s how I found my way to Dr. Holmes.”

Dennis Holmes, MD, world-renowned breast surgeon and medical director of the Breast Program at Adventist Health Glendale, was immediately struck by the emotion of the situation. “This is a young lady with a potentially deadly breast cancer diagnosis who is trying to have a child,” he said. “There was this urgency to do something. Before I met Vanessa, it didn’t seem like things were happening at an appropriate pace, which was concerning to me for a cancer that is likely to grow and spread if not treated early and effectively. The complexity of her situation bolstered our commitment to work with her.”

In addition to being pregnant, Vanessa was also found to carry the BRCA mutation, which increased her risk of cancer in both breasts. To receive the treatment she needed, Vanessa was faced with a terrible decision. “Knowing that I might have to end the pregnancy way sooner was the scariest thing for me,” she said. “I just wanted my baby to be okay.”

Fortunately, Dr. Holmes, along with a team of experts who are knowledgeable in the coordination and management of pregnancy and cancer treatment, laid out a plan for the early but safe birth of Vanessa’s baby, along with rapid initiation of chemotherapy for her cancer. Baby Raven was born at 33 weeks and, although she had a rough start, she is now healthy and thriving. Vanessa’s treatment began two weeks later.

“I started chemotherapy first, and then I had surgery with Dr. Holmes at Adventist Health Glendale,” she said. “It was hard knowing that I had to have my breasts removed at this age [because of the BRCA mutation], but I could see that everyone was doing everything they could to make me comfortable. And I think it’s really important for us to know that at that moment, you’re going to be safe and comfortable — and it’s going to be okay.”

“Breast cancer treatment is not an easy thing to go through,” added Dr. Holmes. “Especially for a young woman who is pregnant. It’s important to remind women like Vanessa that getting through pregnancy and having a healthy baby are not the only goals — there’s a life to live after that, for both mom and baby.

Today, Vanessa feels stronger after breast cancer treatment and enjoys life with Raven, now 11 months old, seven-year-old son Alexis and husband Juan. “If I can get through this, I can get through anything,” she said.

Support the care of patients like Vanessa and the work of physicians like Dr. Holmes.

Make a gift today to support the Adventist Health Glendale Tufenkian Family Breast Cancer Survivorship Program Endowment.

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