While every pregnancy is unpredictable, Colleen Molina had no idea the upheaval she was about to face. In February 2020, she found out she had breast cancer, mere weeks before her second child was supposed to be born and a global pandemic descended on Rochester.
Undaunted, Molina not only survived but used this challenge to her advantage, improving herself and her outlook.
“I actually just love my life so much more and I have such a different appreciation for everything that I have,” she says, reflecting back on the events of 2020.
She got to that point because of extraordinary support from medical professionals and family and friends – starting right from her initial diagnosis in February. When Avice O’Connell, M.D., UR Medicine Breast Imaging specialist who performed Molina’s biopsy, called with the news, the physical education teacher was 8 months pregnant and on the way to daycare to pick up her 2-year-old daughter.
She felt overwhelmed with what to do next, so O’Connell offered to make phone calls to connect Molina with the breast cancer team at Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Comprehensive Breast Care at Pluta.
She met with her medical oncologist Carla Falkson, M.D., and breast surgical oncologist Kristin Skinner, M.D. Because of a family history of breast cancer, Molina also decided to get genetic testing through Wilmot’s Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Clinic. Knowing whether she had a genetic mutation could impact treatment.
“We were going to be looking at treatment options and surgery options and I really wanted to have that information before,” she says. “Everything was moving very fast but I wanted to have that.”
Genetic testing did not find a mutation, but further testing on her biopsy did show that her breast cancer, although stage 1, was more likely to recur. Because of that, her team recommended chemotherapy following surgery, which she would need to have while she was still pregnant. She opted for a lumpectomy, which is less invasive than a mastectomy.
During the decision-making, Molina sought a second opinion from another cancer center in New York state. Doctors there offered opinions similar opinions to the Wilmot team and she ultimately decided to keep her care closer to her Brockport home.
“When it came down to it, I felt a lot more comfortable with the doctors at Pluta and I felt a personal connection to them and living closer to them would be easier,” she says.
She also felt more supported and empowered at Wilmot.
“The more educated I became on things, the less anxiety I would have about it,” she says. “It gives you a little more control.”
And so, days before the pandemic became a major concern in Rochester, at 37 weeks pregnant, Molina had a successful lumpectomy with Skinner at Highland Hospital, with an obstetrics team standing by and monitoring the baby.
As she recovered, her team hoped the baby would wait at least two weeks before delivery, and he did. But during those two weeks, the world turned upside down. On top of a breast cancer diagnosis and pending childbirth, Molina now also had coronavirus to consider, as worrisome news emerged of COVID-19 and how it would impact local hospitals.
Everything was changing so quickly. In fact, Molina recalls that while she was in labor, walking the halls at Strong Memorial Hospital, she was stopped mid-walk and had to return to her room. Temperatures were taken on the spot.
“All the policies were changing while I was in labor,” she says. “That was stressful, but we were all fine.”
The universal masking policy hadn’t gone into effect yet, but because of the breast cancer diagnosis, everyone who entered her room worse masks, due to her increased vulnerability to the virus.
Despite these COVID-19 pandemic challenges, Molina says her son’s birth was much easier than her first child’s. On March 25, she and her husband welcomed George Francis into the world.
When mom, dad and baby returned home, Molina’s parents and sister – who had been playing it very safe since the pandemic began – stayed with the new family of four to help out and her brother and sister-in-law provided support from their home in Pittsburgh.
Molina breastfed baby George for seven weeks before needing scans that required her to stop nursing. She started chemo when he was around eight weeks old, receiving four rounds.
“The first two rounds didn’t really have side effects other than being tired. I didn’t know if I was tired because I was getting chemo or because I had a newborn and a toddler,” she says. “But with my parents here, I was up several times in the night, but during the day, I was able to go take a nap.”
Her second two rounds hit a little harder. She maintained her running habit during treatment, which she believes helped to keep side effects under control. The continued support from her family and friends also made a huge difference. In addition to her husband, parents and sister, her friends found unique ways to show they cared.
“Before every treatment, they sent flowers to the house. They would send food, they would zoom call, they would send me text messages all day and all night,” she says.
The day she got home from her third treatment, the doorbell rang. Some of her friends from college drove from as far away as 4 hours just to stand on the lawn with signs, balloons, and flowers. They wanted to say congrats, and wouldn’t let a pandemic stop them.
“We just talked for about 10 minutes from a distance and then they went home,” she says. “They said, ‘We’re not staying. We’re not contaminating you. We just wanted to show you support and we’re here for you.’”
In August, she finished chemotherapy and was set to begin radiation therapy with Marilyn Ling, M.D. She also will take hormone-blocking medication for five to 10 years, because of her type of breast cancer.
From the beginning, she also sought mental health support and met with Jamie Carr, M.S., M.F.T., a marriage and family therapy clinician with Strong Behavioral Health at Women’s Behavioral Health Service at Lattimore.
“I always had my family and friends to talk to but with this stuff, I don’t always want to burden my parents, who are already in the thick of it with me,” she says. “It’s really nice to have Jamie and she has great advice on things. You can just talk things out and feel much better and just really work on the mental health pieces of it. It just got me into a really great place.”
Now, she has new confidence and is excited to bring that new perspective to motherhood and to her career in the Webster School District.
She hopes, in the future, to be able to give back, perhaps by volunteering, supporting research or helping in another way. But for now, she’s living in the moment, focusing on the joy her children bring her – the support they give her without even realizing it – instead of the adversity swirling around her life.
“Having two little ones at home is definitely a challenge but it’s also the best thing ever because you have to get up every day and play with them. It just makes the days fun and that was a huge coping thing for me,” she says. “My daughter is two and doesn’t understand any of it and is just like, ‘I want to play! I want to see mommy! I want to do this!’ And that brings you away from yourself and you can hang out with your toddler and have fun.”