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How One Couple Made it through a Bladder Cancer Diagnosis during Pregnancy

Kara and Spencer Byrne Outside Fishing
The room goes quiet as Kara Byrne starts to find her words and tears fill her eyes. Her husband, Spencer, finishes her thought. "Twelve weeks," he says. Kara quietly repeats him, "twelve weeks."

Kara and Spencer had been trying to get pregnant for about two years when she began having symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI). After test results came back negative, doctors were not concerned. Spencer and Kara didn’t push for more tests.

After Kara got pregnant, she experienced what she thought was spotting—light bleeding that sometimes happens during pregnancy. She was relieved to find that the blood might have been coming from her urine, meaning the baby was safe.

"When the blood got more intense, that’s when I pushed the doctors to do something more urgently," Kara says. "I ended up getting an ultrasound and remember seeing a mass. I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s supposed to be there.’ It wasn’t our baby. It was a perfect little round ball and it scared me."

A few days later, Kara and Spencer went to the University of Utah (U of U) Health urology department, where Kara had a scope procedure.

"Within 90 seconds of the first doctors seeing the tumor, there were three other doctors in the room," Spencer says. "It all unfolded quickly." The next day, Kara was diagnosed with stage III bladder cancer.

"Initially, there was some optimism that we were going to be able to remove the cancer, maybe continue the pregnancy, and life would go on," Spencer says. "But it was more invasive than they had hoped."

Kara and Spencer knew that if they continued the pregnancy, it would put Kara’s life in more danger.

"At that point, we understood how severe it was and we had to switch gears," Spencer says. "It was like a light switch for me. I was driven to do everything we could to give Kara the best chance."

At twelve weeks, they ended the pregnancy.

"It was a major procedure that was scary, and sad, and devastating," Kara says. "I knew the OB-GYN, Martha; she held my hand through all of it and I remember talking to her the whole time."

When Kara and Spencer got home, she crawled into bed and didn’t want to get up. They decided to drive to Montana to visit some close friends. Kara laid on the floor while her girlfriends and Spencer held and comforted her for the next few days.

Kara and Spencer Byrne Sitting Together on Couch at Home
Kara and Spencer Byrne

"I remember thinking that if Spencer hadn’t gotten me out of the bed that day, I probably would’ve stayed there for a long time," Kara says. "But we pushed through to get where we needed to go so people could comfort us, hold us, and love us."

Kara continued cancer treatment with Huntsman Cancer Institute urologists Brock O’Neil, MD, and Sumati Gupta, MD. She had surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes and create a urostomy, or a new way to urinate, which she still lives with.

"Shortly after the surgery, it turned out that chemo was the way to go and it kicked my butt," Kara says. "I had a care team around me, though. I had friends and family. We couldn’t get through this without them. We needed them to survive."

"Early on, Dr. O’Neil said if we could fight this thing for two years, a lot of new research would be coming out," says Spencer. "Sure enough, there are now immunotherapies and a lot of other things on the table that weren’t available when Kara was first diagnosed."

Kara has been cancer free since November 2018. As time goes on, the chance of her cancer coming back continues to drop.

As a research assistant professor of social work at the U of U, Kara works with many children to help make a difference in their lives.

"We’re still trying to figure out if we can get pregnant and are going with the flow right now," says Kara. "I’m happy with my life because two-and-a-half years ago I didn’t know if I was going to be here at this point. I have so many babies in my life right now—my nieces, nephews, and godchildren. I am overjoyed that I can help other people and be part of their village."

2022 Update

Our daughter Sloane was born this March, and we couldn't be more in love. Sloane is a healthy and happy little girl, and we are so grateful she chose us as her parents. We can't help but think she's been trying to come into our world for a few years now. We are so grateful to our doctors who helped us navigate pregnancy, labor, and delivery, especially Dr. Brock O'Neil from Huntsman Cancer Institute, who was in constant contact with our OB/GYNs to ensure a safe pregnancy and delivery of our little one. We couldn't have done it without him!

Kara Byrne Holding Her Baby, Sloane

Cancer touches all of us.