Rare surgical technique enables healthy pregnancy after cervical cancer

The Zinga family

From the time she was a young girl, Jennifer Zinga knew she wanted three children. By age 31, she and her husband had had two boys — and she was well on the way to achieving her dream family.

Then, just six months after her second son was born, she was diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer. Her doctor recommended a hysterectomy, which would end her hopes of conceiving a third child.

“I remember hearing ‘cancer’ and ‘hysterectomy,’ and everything else was muffled, like I was underwater,” Zinga said. “My husband, Tim, and I were devastated by the news. But we weren’t ready to give up.”

The couple met with University of Chicago Medicine gynecologic oncologist Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD, one of just a few physicians in the U.S. who performs a technically challenging surgery called trachelectomy. The innovative procedure involves removal of the cervix, while leaving most of the uterus intact.

“A trachelectomy allows us to balance treating the cancer with a patient’s desire to preserve fertility and carry a baby,” Lengyel said. “Fortunately, because the cervical cancer was at an early stage, Jennifer met the criteria for this procedure.”

The couple felt both comforted and excited.

“Dr. Lengyel and his staff were reassuring and positive,” Tim said. “And we had a glimpse of hope that Jen would be OK and that we could also have a third child.”

Jen had the procedure in June 2012.

“I remember waking up after surgery and asking Dr. Lengyel if all was OK and if we could have another baby,” she said. “He smiled and told me, ‘You are good to go.’”

We had a huge support group around us. We didn’t have to handle this on our own.

As she recovered from surgery, family and friends were there to help.

“We had a huge support group around us,” Tim said. “We didn’t have to handle this on our own.”

A year after surgery, Jen was pregnant. She delivered a healthy baby boy by caesarean section on April 7, 2014.

The first time Lengyel met the new baby was an emotional moment for all.

“We talk about the potential for success,” Lengyel said, “but to see and hold the success in my arms is a big difference. I’m happy that we delivered what we promised her.”

Today, Lengyel continues to monitor Jen to be sure the cancer has not returned. It’s been more than six years since the surgery, and she happily reports that she is cancer-free.

“Dr. Lengyel is the only reason we have Rocco, our miracle baby,” said Jen, who is now 37. “Along with our sons Giovani and Dominic, our family is now complete. We feel lucky, very lucky.”

Gynecologic oncologist S. Diane Yamada, MD, meets with a patient

Gynecologic cancers

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Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD

Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD

Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD, is the Arthur L. and Lee G. Herbst Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and chairman of the Department of Obstetrics/Gynecology at UChicago Medicine. He is an internationally known expert in the research and treatment of gynecologic cancers.

View Dr. Lengyel's physician profile