Defying pancreatic cancer during pregnancy

Risky surgery mid-pregnancy saves mother and baby

September 11, 2014

Karalayne Maglinte, Pancreatic Cancer patientImagine learning you’re pregnant, then being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks later. That was the predicament 36-year-old Karalayne Maglinte found herself in not too long ago. 

The Pomona resident’s first inkling of trouble began when she was 15 weeks pregnant. “My hands and feet were so itchy I wanted to tear them off,” she recalls. 

Four weeks later, the mother of two developed jaundice and was admitted to a local hospital. 

Testing was inconclusive, but suggested gallstones. When her doctors decided they weren’t equipped to care for her, Maglinte was transferred to UC Irvine Health by ambulance in the middle of the night. 

“Soon after my husband Dennis and I arrived at the hospital, the OB team and liver/pancreas specialists came in to talk with us,” says Maglinte. 

“The doctors were right on it. I felt we were finally going to get some answers.” 

Shortly afterward, Dr. John Lee — an expert in diseases of the liver, pancreas, bile ducts and gallbladder — examined Maglinte using endoscopic ultrasound. His findings led to a biopsy of her pancreas. He also implanted a stent in Maglinte’s bile duct to alleviate her jaundice. Although complex, each procedure was minimally invasive and safe for the baby. 

“The biopsy showed that Karalayne had an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer in its earliest stage,” Lee explains. “Our cancer team recommended immediate surgery because it would be safest for both Karalayne and her fetus.”

“I was beyond nervous,” recalls Maglinte. “My focus was more on the baby than myself. I wanted to fight for her and was worried she wouldn’t survive the surgery or anesthesia.” 

“The goal was to maximize the health of the mother without jeopardizing the baby,” explains Dr. Julianne Toohey, a high-risk pregnancy specialist. She and a host of other subspecialists worked together to keep Maglinte and her fetus safe.

Eleven days after the biopsy, pancreas and liver surgeon Dr. Aram Demirjian performed the Whipple procedure on 21-weeks pregnant Maglinte. Among the most complex surgeries known today, the six-hour operation included removal of the part of the pancreas in which the tumor was growing, as well as several other structures tightly interwoven with the organ. 

“Very few surgeons have the skills to operate on a pregnant patient with pancreatic cancer,” says Lee. “Dr. Demirjian saved two lives with one surgery and Karalayne went home seven days later. Today, she’s free of cancer but will require periodic exams to check for a recurrence of the disease. It’s nothing short of miraculous.” 

And the miracles continued. Emlee, now 5 months old, was born full term on the second day of spring, joining her two brothers, 7-year-old Ian and 2-year-old Isaac. Perfect in every way, she’s a message of abiding hope for the Maglinte family. “I’m now cancer-free and so grateful for the care I received,” says Maglinte. “My husband and I try not to look backward. Instead, we’re focused on the future and better days ahead with our children.” 

To learn more about Karalayne̕s miraculous story, visit ucirvinehealth.org/meetkaralayne.

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