This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
In December 2022, Mairead McInerney suffered a miscarriage in her 11th week of pregnancy. From there, it was a shockwave of more bad news.
McInerney had also developed a hard lump in her right breast, which she had first attributed to her pregnancy. She decided to get a mammogram and ultrasound, and the lump turned out to be stage three triple negative breast cancer, which is aggressive.
McInerney and her husband tried to process everything that had just happened.
“Here we were in the midst of grieving the loss of our child, sort of wrapping our arms around this aggressive diagnosis,” recalled the Ambler, Pa. resident.
Her treatment team at Pennsylvania Hospital mapped out her chemotherapy plan.
“I still remember sitting there as my oncologist drew out this map. And that map to me almost looked like a marathon. I’ve never run a marathon, but looking at that map, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is going to this is going to take a long time.’”
Then she received more bad news. The oncologist wasn’t going to be able to follow the standard protocol for her type of cancer because one of the chemotherapy drugs she needed was not available.
“So what he did instead was to flip the protocol. And so it’s been done before and in other places. However, I was his first patient for him to do this,” said McInerney.
She said the pivot meant starting with the hardest part of the chemo protocol.
Mairead McInerney waiting for her chemotherapy port to be implanted to receive her treatment in 2022. (Courtesy of McInerney)
“So I dove right in. I lost my hair within one week, post the first round of treatment, and it really knocked my blood cells down. My body was really depleted from my white blood cell count.”
As McInerney progressed with her chemo, she started to look forward to the end of her treatments. Then she learned there was another shortage that meant her treatment had to be changed once again. She said the experience was exhausting and stressful.
“It really really rocks you because the cancer’s been out of my control, and now potentially medication is out of my control. And to see your oncology team struggle, because they’re the ones to have to bear these messages, but they’re not in control of this either, that’s heartbreaking, because you know that they’re also feeling helpless with you.”
McInerney worries that the changes in protocol will affect her outcomes and long-term recovery.
“I know we made the best decision with the information and the resources we had at the time,” she said, “but this is still a very new disease. And so the research being done on it is still very new, and I am worried.”
As a licensed clinical social worker, she said she has a lot of coping skills to deal with the persistent anxiety all of this has caused, but it has still taken a massive toll on her. She said that’s true for other patients in her situation.
“It impacts our nervous system, and if you think about it like a glass of water, we keep being filled to the top. And with this type of anxiety, you start spilling over. And here we are to be really focused on healing,” she said. “It really should just not be something that we have to worry about and it should not be something that the physicians have to worry about.”