FORT WORTH — Roxanne Martinez set up a nursery in her Fort Worth home months ago, determined she and her unborn baby would live to share time together in it.
But learning about the baby last October was just the first shock.
"Finding out I'm pregnant, and finding out I have breast cancer — all in the same week," Martinez said.
Not long ago, pregnant women with cancer faced a terrible life-and-death decision: Save themselves and sacrifice the baby, or save the baby and sacrifice the treatment.
Martinez was diagnosed with an aggressive, triple-negative breast cancer.
"She probably would have survived to the end of her pregnancy," said Dr. Robin Young, Martinez' medical oncologist at The Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders in Fort Worth. "But at the price of having that cancer having spread through her body and then dying in the next year or two."
But Dr. Young said new research shows certain chemotherapy medicines don't cross the placenta well, enabling expectant mothers to get life-saving therapy.
"The time when it causes real damage where we see heart damage and organs that don't form and limb malformations is that first trimester," Dr. Young explained. "And that's the time we have to say we cannot do this at this point."
Even before being reassured that treatment was an option, Martinez had made her choice.
"I just made the decision that I wasn't going to lose my baby," she said. "That's the most exciting part is gaining new life while fighting for my own."
Because Martinez' Stage II breast cancer was diagnosed early in pregnancy, she had a mastectomy first. Then she waited until the second trimester, when her baby's organs were fully developed, to begin what some consider the toxic onslaught of chemotherapy.
"You give up caffeine, alcohol. Can't even take most over-the-counter drugs," Martinez said recently as she sat down for her seventh round of chemo. "But here I am, taking chemotherapy."
As more women delay having a baby, the incidence of cancer during pregnancy is rising. By some estimates, one in 1,000 women will deal with both.
Doctors tracked the health of Roxanne's unborn baby with regular sonograms.
"As long as I feel the baby kicking and moving around, I know everything is going to be all right," Martinez said.
It's a sentiment echoed by her boyfriend and the baby's father, Gerald Shelbon. "I'm confident she [the baby] will be all right," he said.
Martinez said she has been surprised that undergoing chemotherapy while pregnant hasn't been as bad as she envisioned. She typically gets tired and sick the day after treatment.
"The baby seems to recover faster than I do," Martinez said.
Recently, Martinez felt good enough to walk the Susan Komen Race for the Cure in Fort Worth.
But doctors warn that chemo can have side-effects on unborn babies, including undiagnosed birth defects and pre-term delivery.
Martinez went into labor six weeks early.
What was to be the day of her last chemo treatment — April 20 — became the birthday of Serenity Milagros.
"'Milagros' means 'miracle' in Spanish," Martinez said. "Our little miracle! She's been the biggest blessing."
Doctors had told the proud parents that their baby might also be born bald, another side-effect of chemotherapy on the unborn. But unlike Martinez — who is currently bald from chemo treatment, Serenity was born will a full head of hair.
Baby Milagros appears to be healthy, and was able to go home from the hospital five days after delivery, even though she was born six weeks early.
"I can't get over how beautiful she is," Martinez said. "I brought in new life even during one of the toughest times of my life. I'm ready to fight as long and as hard as I have to to be around for a long time."
Roxanne Martinez is now part of a national registry of women who have battled cancer while pregnant. And she donated the placenta to advance limited research on how chemo can affect unborn babies.
While she still has a long battle ahead — for now — this new mother has hope for two.