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A village will help feed breast cancer patient’s baby

Woman thrilled by mothers’ generous donations of breast milk

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: October 18, 2016, 8:56pm
4 Photos
Erin Maher is juggling pregnancy, breast cancer and motherhood. Her son Liam, 2 1/2, points to family photos.
Erin Maher is juggling pregnancy, breast cancer and motherhood. Her son Liam, 2 1/2, points to family photos. (Joseph Glode for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Erin Maher went to her obstetrician for a routine appointment when she was 14 weeks pregnant. She left with a breast cancer diagnosis.

“I just stared at her,” Maher, 32, said. “I couldn’t even react.”

Maher and her husband, Brandon, left the doctor’s office believing they would lose the baby they didn’t even think they could conceive. The couple had tried for three years to get pregnant with their son, only to be told by doctors they were infertile. After they stopped trying, they were surprised by a positive pregnancy test. Their son, Liam, is now 2 1/2 years old.

They had assumed they wouldn’t be able to conceive again but were thinking about trying anyway. Two weeks later, in late May, they learned Erin Maher was pregnant.

Then, on Aug. 3, Maher learned she had breast cancer and would need chemotherapy and surgery.

“For that 24 hours after, my husband and I assumed we would lose the baby,” Maher said.

But the Vancouver couple learned that because Maher was in the second trimester of pregnancy, she could undergo chemotherapy without putting the baby’s life at risk.

While the diagnosis was difficult to hear, Maher was heartbroken by what it would mean for her unborn child.

“One of the first thoughts that went through my head was, ‘I’m not going to be able to breast-feed my baby,’ ” she said.

Maher breast-fed Liam until he was more than 2, when she learned she was pregnant again, and wanted desperately for her second child to receive breast milk.

“I immediately just shifted to looking for donations,” Maher said.

While living in Klamath Falls, Ore., Maher had started a breast-feeding group and, through it, donated thousands of ounces of extra milk to mothers in need. She turned to the women of that group when she learned she would need breast milk donations for her daughter, Illianna.

Then she turned to the women of local Facebook groups, such as Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets — Oregon, and asked strangers to donate. Maher ruled out purchasing from a milk bank after learning it can cost more than $5 per ounce.

Maher shared her story on the Facebook pages. The response was swift and overwhelming.

Since she began looking for donations in August, Maher has received thousands of ounces of milk. Maher hasn’t counted, but she suspects her 14-cubic-foot freezer, which is about two-thirds full, is currently storing about 6,000 ounces — more than 45 gallons — of donated milk. Frozen correctly, the milk is good for up to 12 months.

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“I honestly wasn’t expecting to get this much,” Maher said.

Treatment plans

Maher has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy and has two more to go; the last one will take place right after Thanksgiving. Then, on Dec. 20, she’ll undergo a lumpectomy to remove the tumor in her right breast. When she began treatment, the tumor was about 5 millimeters; now, doctors estimate it’s about 2 millimeters.

Maher’s labor will be induced when she’s 37 weeks pregnant, on Jan. 12, and then she will undergo a double mastectomy two to four weeks later. Maher was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, since the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. After the baby is born, Maher will have a PET scan, which she cannot have while pregnant, to determine whether the cancer has spread further.

Maher hoped to initially get enough milk for at least the first few weeks of her baby’s life, while she healed from her mastectomy. Her goal was to eventually get enough to last six months, when she would introduce food and the baby wouldn’t need as much milk.

“The way things are going, I don’t think I have to worry about it,” Maher said.

The milk Maher has accumulated so far should feed her baby for four to five months, she said.

While health officials warn against buying or acquiring milk from unknown people, Maher isn’t too concerned. The donated milk comes with some risk, she said, but she trusts that the women taking the time to pump, freeze and donate their extra milk are not out to harm others, especially since they’re feeding their own children the same milk.

“They’re not going to poison their kid, so they’re not going to poison mine,” Maher said

Even though Maher donated thousands of ounces of her own pumped milk to strangers, she never realized the impact of her generosity. Now on the receiving end, Maher is overwhelmed by the gifts.

“The local community has been so supportive,” Maher said. “It’s hard to thank them properly.”

“I don’t know how to tell them how important it is for us to have this,” she added.

The milk stockpile means Maher has one less thing to worry about as she heads into the final months of pregnancy and cancer treatment. Despite the diagnosis and everything still before her, Maher is staying upbeat.

“There’s a lot of positive things that came from it and are coming from it,” Maher said. “I choose to focus on those.”

“And,” she added, “I have a baby to look forward to.”

Columbian Health Reporter