(PHOENIX) — Briana Cox had a malignant skin melanoma removed in 2006 and was assured by her doctors that the cancer had not spread and all her margins were clear.
The Phoenix police detective went on to have a son David, now 3, and became again pregnant with her daughter Addison.
But just two months after her daughter was born in June 2011, Cox had a seizure and collapsed during a run. Scans revealed her brain and other parts of her body were riddled with advanced cancer.
Months later, when four dark bumps appeared on baby Addison’s forehead, she too was diagnosed with the same stage-four melanoma.
Cox died in February at the age of 33, but her last wish was to tell her family’s private, but painful story to help others better understand the dangers of the disease.
Her doctors were baffled by this medical anomaly — Cox’s cancer cells had metastasized during her pregnancy and crossed the placenta to her developing fetus.
“It was like running into a brick wall,” said James Cox, who was in the Azores serving in the U.S. Air Force when his wife was diagnosed. “It knocks the wind out of you. It was like being punched in the chest. And when Addison was, it was like being ejected from a car. You wonder, what’s next?”
The phenomenon has only been recorded “a handful of times” in medical literature, according to Dr. Pooja Hingorani, a pediatric oncologist who is now treating Addison at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
“All cancer can happen in pregnancy,” she said. “But melanoma is the most common cancer to pass through the placenta from the mother.”
About 30 percent of all mother-to-fetus cancers are melanoma, according to Hingorani, who said she has only seen four to five cases ever.
“When it is in the blood stream, it can go everywhere,” she said.
Melanoma is a virulent form of skin cancer that begins in the cells that make the pigment melanin, but it can also begin in the eyes or intestines. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 76,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and 9,100 die of the disease yearly.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio