My daughter and I are a lot alike. She’s a Type-A personality. She smiles easily and loves to laugh. She’s highly social. She enjoys moving her body. She loves to learn. She has long, dark-brown hair and brown eyes.
But my husband and I are Caucasian, and our daughter is Chinese-American. And my daughter wasn’t born from my body. She has a birth mother, somewhere. How we came together and how much we are alike, even from the beginning, before nurture could get in the way, is just miraculous. Unforeseen circumstances and critical people almost prevented it from happening. Why? No felonious past, no abusive present. Plenty of love and resources to bestow. Then why? Because I had been diagnosed with cancer.
There’s never a good time for it, a cancer diagnosis. It mucks up the works and makes you take a time out from what’s usually a pretty decent life. Really, even a lackluster life looks pretty sparkly compared to the life of a cancer patient. But my first cancer diagnosis came at a particularly critical time; my husband and I had been married five days short of one year, and I was trying to get pregnant with what would be our first child.
I was 32, a young professional, having the time of my life. I’d waited for “the right one” to come along, he did, and we were embarking on what promised to be an amazing life together. And although there were many uncertainties, when I was first diagnosed I knew one thing for sure: I wasn’t getting pregnant for a while.
I was lucky
I live in a healthcare mecca. There is cutting-edge work being done here every day, and I have ready access to the men and women doing it. But as it turned out, the latest technology wasn’t for me. Before I started treatment, my husband and I visited one of the men on the forefront of reproductive technology. In order for me to become pregnant, we’d have to harvest my eggs, fertilize them with my husband’s sperm, and freeze embryos. But hold up: To harvest the eggs, you need to shoot a woman up with hormones, and I had a hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. Hormones, in particular estrogen, fueled my cancer’s growth. My oncologist, husband and I all took a deep breath and decided it was a bad idea.
Ever practical, we decided that there was more than one way to skin the parenthood cat; I’d take care of treatment and discuss biological pregnancy and other options afterwards. We’d get through the next year of surgery, chemo and radiation and then reassess our options. I put my head down and barreled through.
Fast-forward 12 months. I’m doing great. I’ve lost a chunk of my left breast, have very little hair, my energy is low but my spirits are high. I have no evidence of disease, I’m 33 and I’m psyched to get on with the show. We explore the option of biological pregnancy before tamoxifen (an estrogen blocker that I would take for the next five years), and discover after full fertility workups that we’d still require medical intervention in order for me to have a biological child. Chemo has left me the ovarian reserves of a 50-year-old. More hormones. More uncertainty. My incredibly supportive oncologist tells us he’ll go along with whatever we decide, but that his preference is to play it safe: Take tamoxifen for five years, don’t take hormones to induce ovulation. My husband and I eventually agree.
So where did this leave us?
I was, for all intents and purposes, rendered infertile by my cancer treatment. The very treatment that had the highest potential for my living until elderly, was simultaneously stealing my dreams of conceiving a child. I felt the poignancy of this, but also moved through it quickly. I wanted to parent a child, and there were other ways to achieve that goal. My eyes were on the prize.
We got busy. We investigated egg donation and gestational surrogacy. But as a lawyer, a litigator no less, the relatively uncharted territory of contracts with baby-carriers scared me more than the process itself. How horrendous would it be to be expecting a baby only to get into a legal tangle with someone who was supposed to be facilitating our dream? We realized that we had a low tolerance for uncertainty during this process. When you’re blindsided by a young-adult cancer diagnosis, you start to be very careful about everything else in your life. They say lightening doesn’t strike twice, but what were the chances of it striking the first time? Teeny-tiny. Needless to say, we weren’t hitting any casinos either.
Next stop: adoption
Because of our newly found risk aversion, we were drawn away from domestic adoption. In most cases, the biological parents have some time to change their minds. Again, the thought of having parenthood yanked out from under us made our stomachs drop. Instead, we believed international adoption, and in particular, adoption from Korea or China, would provide us with the best possible chances for a healthy baby who was free from legal issues with the birth family. To boot, we both had an interest in various Asian cultures and we felt we could whole-heartedly foster our child’s birth culture. We were comfortable with becoming a trans-racial family.
Another roadblock: We discovered that Korea had a five-year cancer-free rule. I was one year out. China, who then dealt with cancer survivors on a case-by-case basis, was our best bet. And here’s where I encountered my first real prejudice in life. In the informational meetings adoption agencies held, otherwise warm and competent agency directors glazed over and constructed giant hurdles when I approached them afterwards and described my “special situation.” My prognosis was excellent. I had an on-board oncologist who’d jump through hoops for me. I was willing to submit to additional medical testing. With the exception of one agency, I faced anything from grievous concern to outright rejection.
But one director took a chance on me. “We’ll see,” she said, “I am hopeful.” We submitted preliminary paperwork to the China Center for Adoption Affairs and were given the green light to continue. From there it was a mere six months until we flew to China to meet our daughter. Although she’s not made from our collective DNA, my husband and I could not love this child more. I always say there is nothing that’ll get you over yourself faster than a kid. She is in the NOW. There’s no dwelling on recurrence or fretting about fatigue. You’re the parent in charge. The past eight years of stepping up to the plate for her have been unimaginatively joyful. Fatigue-filled and patience testing, but joyful.
What did I learn?
As we hit roadblock after roadblock, I felt a desperation I’d never known. I was a kind and affectionate woman, with a devoted and adoring husband. We were so capable of caring for and loving a child. My long-term survival odds were very, very high. That short straw I drew in getting diagnosed with cancer almost got me barred from the parenting club. My bad luck almost bit me in the butt. I will never, ever forget the woman who made us a family. In part, because she helped bring our daughter into our lives, but also because she took a chance on me. Her openness helped this cancer survivor live the life she’d wanted all along: One with all the trappings of normalcy.
Sarah Isenberg is a recovering lawyer, two-time breast cancer survivor and accomplished home cook with a penchant for whole foods, healthy living, green tea and black shoes. She lives just outside Boston, Massachusetts with her 8-year-old daughter, husband, and a fancy hamster named Ruby. Get the latest on what she’s cooking at Semi-Sweet: A Practical Guide to Healthy Living, or on the joys and trials of her dance with cancer at Be The Weeble.