It seems like everyone I know is having a baby. Friends, family, acquaintances – all of them are expecting or are now new moms. There is nothing like other people’s joy serving as painful reminder of the things you cannot have. Please don’t get me wrong, I am overjoyed for their happiness and the blessing of a new life, its just that it is an in-your-face reminder that I will never be a mother or experience pregnancy.
For a while I thought that this sense of loss was more about feeling what it is like to be pregnant than actually being a mother, but I now know that it is the whole cycle of life that I am missing out on.
Early on in my diagnosis, I had the wherewithal to ask about fertility preservation. I was referred to an oncofertility specialist just days before my first treatment. I remember vividly sitting in the doctor’s office, thinking I had everything under control until “harvesting, embryos, and sperm donors” were mentioned. I actually started having a panic attack. As liberal-minded and pro-choice as I am, actually having to decide made me start questioning my ethics. Questions bounced around in my head, “What if I meet someone and they don’t want my sperm donor embryos?”, “What kind of qualities do I look for in a donor?”, “What do I do with my embryos if I don’t use them? I can’t donate them because pieces of me will be out there, and I don’t know if I can destroy them.” The thoughts were endless.
Breathe, just breathe, I thought.
My saving grace was my oncologist deciding that there just wasn’t time to delay three weeks to harvest my eggs, that my reproductive system would just have to be shut down. It seems strange to have this monumental decision made for me, but it was a relief that I didn’t have to decide. As much as I wanted to consider the options, the truth was, there wasn’t time and I didn’t really have anyone to turn to for non-biased advice.
My system was put into a chemically induced menopause twice for each round of chemo. Oh the joys of hot flashes and hormone fluctuation. After treatment was finished, I saw my fertility doc again to revisit whether I wanted to harvest and preserve my eggs. At the time, I had decided that I would harvest eggs, but I didn’t have the finances to proceed at that time. Even though I would be getting the cancer discount of 50% off the regular price, $5000 was a lot of money and I just didn’t have it, and so I waited.
Again, the decision was made for me, my cancer was back, this time it had spread and I realized that I might not get out of this alive. Parenthood would have to be something that was sacrificed in order to save my own life. Even though it is now three years later and I am stable and in a relationship, my choices are still limited to acceptance of my infertility, just now I am actively trying to prevent pregnancy.
It is amazing how things can come full circle, initially having the option of being a mother taken away from me made me want it so much more. Now having been through treatment and five years of living with cancer has made me steadfast in deciding not to have a child. I mean, how can I possibly put a child through losing their mother, or risk passing on my faulty genes?! The truth is, had I never encountered cancer, I wouldn’t have a problem trying to get pregnant at 36, but that is no longer the case.
Even if I could get pregnant, my ovaries and eggs have been exposed to so much radiation from scans and treatment, they have been exposed to systemic chemotherapy, and they are 36 years old, the odds of having a healthy pregnancy would not be in my favour. As it is, the current treatment I’m on counter-indicates pregnancy as the drug inhibits a protein that is used during fetal development and the effects on a growing fetus are unknown but likely detrimental. I could stop treatment, but that would mean I’d have to stop my meds for at least six months, plus the time it would take to get pregnant and finally another nine months until delivery. I might be lucky enough to have the cancer grow slowly enough to make it to delivery and restart treatment, but then there are no guarentees that I’d respond to treatment again. Its like playing Russian Roulette with my future children and their lives, and I’m not willing to do it.
Maybe it is a selfish decision, maybe it’s for the best, but there is nothing like holding and smelling a new baby to make you doubt your decisions. I don’t know what it is about the new baby smell that triggers every cell in our biology to want a baby, but it does and its hard to resist that siren’s call. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to attend baby showers or even hold a newborn because it was so upsetting, but I have gotten better. Knowing something in your brain doesn’t make it any easier to knowing it in your heart. I don’t regret any of my decisions and it has taken a long time to get to a place of acceptance. I still have my bad days, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for the healthy children that are growing in utero or have come into this world, even if there aren’t my own.
Anne Marie is a 36 year old lung cancer survivor. Originally diagnosed at the age of 30, she put her career as an educator on hold for treatment. After experiencing a recurrence at 32 she was forced to face what it meant to be incurable. Since then, she has become a patient advocate for both the young adult and lung cancer communities. She has spoken internationally about her experience as a young adult living with lung cancer in the hopes of changing the public’s perception of the disease. Anne Marie currently volunteers as a peer supporter and is a sitting board member of Lung Cancer Canada. “My goal as CKN’s Young Adult Editor is to represent the whole cancer experience and the range of challenges young adults face at all stages of the cancer journey, from diagnosis to remission to end of life.”