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Cancer diagnosis creates challenge for expectant mother

Published on Monday, April 10, 2017

By: Cynthia Wall

Published in News Stories on April 10, 2017

Anitrus Robinson got one miracle. Now she prays for another.

The mother of three found out she had breast cancer when she was 20 weeks pregnant with her son. Within just a few hours, she and husband, Joey, rode a roller coaster of emotions, decisions and new discoveries.

“That was the craziest day ever,” she said, a blanket keeping her warm as she received chemotherapy.

With the birth of her son, Joelsteen, on Jan. 19, the Mendenhall couple got one miracle, a healthy baby. Now they're praying for a cure for her Stage 4 breast cancer.

“It is responding to treatment,” said Dr. Barbara Craft, University of Mississippi Medical Center associate professor of hematology/oncology and the oncologist who worked with Robinson during and after her pregnancy.

Robinson's journey began in July when she went to a Jackson-area hospital in pain. “They thought it was muscle spasms,” she said. But the pain persisted. A later visit to her OB-GYN, Dr. Rhonda Sullivan-Ford, resulted in more tests. “They found lesions in my spine and liver,” Robinson said. “Dr. Ford did a breast exam and found a little something there. Then she ordered a sonogram.”

“She sent me to UMMC,” Robinson said. “When I got there, there was a whole team waiting for me.”

That team included emergency medical specialists who worked to lower her dangerously high calcium rate, obstetrics and gynecology and medical oncology doctors among others.

Besides Ford, who found and identified her possible breast cancer, her team came to include Craft, who has worked with many young women with breast cancer, and Dr. Michelle Owens, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who has shepherded other young women through pregnancy and cancer.

Once at UMMC, Robinson said, doctors told me “I may have to make a decision on whether to terminate the baby or save my own life. I didn't like either option.”

“Doctors were coming and talking to each other,” she said. “They called Dr. Craft at like midnight from the ER. They talked to other doctors, then came in and told me if I wanted to keep my baby I could and they had a different meeting and came up with two drugs that wouldn't affect him but he might be born with low birth weight and they might have to take him early.”

Joey Robinson holds his son, Joelsteen, outside the UMMC Cancer Institute.
Joey Robinson holds his son, Joelsteen, outside the UMMC Cancer Institute.

Treating pregnant cancer patients is unusual, Craft said. “We like for them to be followed in our maternal fetal medicine program,” she said. “Usually you want to wait until the second trimester to give them any chemo.”

That helps with more normal fetus development and blood counts. “This baby was healthy and had a big head of hair,” Craft said.

Robinson, 36, said she grabbed the chance to give her son life and be there to see him. “I was diagnosed on Sept. 22 and started treatment on Sept. 23.”

At just under 6 pounds and arriving at 36 weeks, about four weeks short of a normal gestation, Joelsteen beat the odds and didn't have to stay in neonatal intensive care, Robinson said.

Because of the circumstances and lesions on her spine, Robinson couldn't have an epidural and had to be anesthetized for his birth. But doctors did relax the rules to allow her husband, Joey, to be at the cesarean section. “Their child had both parents with him when he entered this world,” Owens said. “We tried to give them as normal a moment as they could have.”

Robinson is glad her husband was nearby but said she regrets not hearing her child's first cry.

“For her, cancer didn't win,” said Owens. “It didn't take her baby. It didn't take her life. It didn't take the experience of birth with them together.”

Owens, who estimates in her 14 years at UMMC, she's cared for about 20 pregnant women with some type of cancer, said Robinson did and is doing all she can to beat cancer.

“She showed up for every visit. She fully embraced treatment,” Owens said. “I think when you're diagnosed with cancer you understand what a gift living is. It was like she got it twofold, the gift of days she had and the gift of life growing inside her.”

“Her faith was palpable. Her faith intensified her strength.”

Even as she seeks her next miracle, Robinson is reaching out to other women who are in her situation. She has volunteered through the American Cancer Society to speak to pregnant cancer patients.

Craft points to Robinson's family support as another plus in her cancer journey. “She has a great attitude and has great family support.” 

Anitrus Robinson and her husband, Joey, go Pink for Tink as she receives chemotherapy at the UMMC Cancer Institute Outpatient Clinic.
Anitrus Robinson and her husband, Joey, go Pink for Tink as she receives chemotherapy at the UMMC Cancer Institute Outpatient Clinic.

Since Joelsteen's birth, Robinson has received targeted medications and ones designed to treat metastases to the bone, both medications she could not have before his birth.

Robinson said the teamwork meant the right physician was available when she needed their expertise most. Ford, finding the cause of her pain; Dr. Louis Puneky at the hospital the night she was admitted; Craft conferencing by phone from out of town; Owens, also on the phone and at the hospital early the next day and others whose names she can't remember or didn't get.

Today, she focuses on her family that also includes son, Joel, 9, and daughter, Aniyah, 7. And, family and members of Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Pinola focus on her.

She said she misses work at the in-school suspension unit at Mendenhall High School, even as she recognizes the drugs that may save her life suppress her immune system and make it unwise for her to be in large groups.

A friend started the Facebook page, Pink for Tink, a longtime nickname, and she follows it when she can and said some students have contacted her through Facebook.  

Her prognosis? “I know what they say,” she said waving a hand toward the door. “I take what they say to my other doctor, Dr. Jesus, because I know what he can do.”