As females, we all carry with us our own personal feelings about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.
These feelings change and develop over time depending on our life experiences. It may be that you have never wanted to be a parent, you may feel pressure to be a mother, some people are scared of the prospect of childbirth and others have always dreamed of having a baby.
Whatever your feelings and thoughts are on the subject, a side effect of most cancer treatments (such as chemotherapy) will be that it affects your fertility and your ability to conceive and carry a baby. Whether you wanted a child or not, this is a hard pill to swallow for many women, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as women, we know that our reproductive years come to an end when we hit our menopause, but for most people that gives you a good few years to start a family when you feel ready. However, early menopause and sudden loss of fertility means that your life ‘plans’ for a family are suddenly changed. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, which is a massive thing to deal with in itself, people are then are faced with big decisions about their future and starting or completing their family. Cancer doesn’t discriminate, it can occur at any stage of life; single, married, divorced, parent, not a parent. Whatever your situation, nobody wants to have their ‘choice’ taken away, especially by something that has already affected their lives so dramatically.
When it comes to cancer, I sadly have been around the block a few times. I was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Cancer back in 2009. At the time, I was 24, just started my career as a teacher, I had recently moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) and was enjoying life just the two of us. I had no idea there was a tumor growing on my Thyroid gland that was the size of a tennis ball. It had spread into 14 of my lymph nodes in the right side of my neck. I was shocked when the doctor told me and I asked him if I was going to die…he said no but they would have to act quickly, I was incredibly lucky that it was caught and removed when it was, before it spread even further. The treatment for this was very invasive surgery that removed my tumour, my Thyroid gland, the nodes and I had a neck dissection.
The surgery was intense, I looked like Frankenstien and I sounded like Michael Jackson (they damaged my vocal cords during surgery so I had a super high voice for a while!) I was then sent to have a special kind of cancer treatment called Radioactive Iodine Treatment (RAI) which targets Thyroid cancer cells. Essentially this treatment involved taking a radioactive pill and then put in isolation for a week at a time.
During my consultations, the oncologist explained that each RAI treatment I had would take 7-10 years off of my menopausal age, the amount of RAI I had would bring me to expect my menopause at the age of 35. He went on to tell me that the treatment could affect the quality of my eggs, that it may cause damage to my reproductive system and that I would most probably struggle to conceive. I was absolutely devastated about this. I have always wanted to be a mother. I am incredibly maternal and adore children. I come from a big family and loved having lots of brothers and sisters and I am an infant school teacher. I am all about the kids! This made this side effect of my treatment so upsetting. At the time when the oncologist was telling me this, everything seemed so rushed and I was still in shock from my diagnosis that I just nodded my head and focused on the treatment ahead of me. At the time, I was not offered IVF or any kind of egg freezing, I had to just sign the consent form and hope for the best in the future.
After all the treatments, I met with my oncologist. He was a very forward, old fashioned kind of doctor and I will always remember the day he told me the cancer had gone and I was in remission. I was very emotional and so relieved as you can imagine. Before I left the consultation, he said “I expect you to be trying for a family from here on in. Next time I see you I want to hear you are pregnant!” I kind of laughed, but the seed was planted and it was very clear to me, if I wanted to be a mother, my plans and expectations had to change. My boyfriend and I got engaged when I was 25, Married when I was 27 and then decided we had better start trying for a baby soon after that. After a year of trying naturally, we could tell it was not going to be that easy for us.
It took me a while to get over my sadness and disappointment. Every month when my period came, it was another sign that my body wasn’t working and the physical mess Cancer had left me in. All around me it seemed everyone was having babies. It seemed like all they had to do was look at a man and they were pregnant. I was so ready to be a mother and unlike everyone else, I did not have time or biology on my side. I went through a period of thinking how unfair it was that I was so ready to be a mother and when I would hear people complaining about their pregnancy I would get annoyed, did they not realise how privileged they are? Do they not realise how lucky they were to be pregnant or a mum. I started feeling resentful, angry, upset and left out. I became moody and irritable and I was consumed by my “failure” to become a mother. What I really struggled with was my identity and femininity. I thought to myself on many occasions how my purpose as a woman on a basic level is to reproduce to keep the human race alive and I can’t even do that. Looking back, I can see I was just hurting and that what I was perceiving the world around me and myself was just a reflection of how I felt inside. The feelings I was having were very normal for someone in my position and any women experiencing infertility understandably feel the same way.
I decided I needed to do something about this, stop dwelling on what I couldn’t do and thought about what I could do. I put all my fears and worries aside and went to the GP to discuss my options. The GP was fantastic, she referred me to the hospital for scans, tests and consultations with experts. What they had discovered was that my hormones were all over the place. Due to one of the major hormone glands being removed, it threw the rest of my system out of whack. My RAI treatment had caused lots of internal damage and they saw on a test called an HSG test that my fallopian tubes were now blocked up with something called hydrosalpinx and some scar tissue. I even had two big cysts that had grown on each of my ovaries! This meant that there was a very slim chance I would ever be able to conceive naturally as there was a physical block to my ovaries where eggs are released and fertilisation happens. The eggs could get out but there was no way the sperm could get through the hydrosalpinx to fertilise my egg. The ladies who did my HSG test hugged me, they told me there and then that I wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally and sent me on my way. As much as it was upsetting, I was pleased to finally have a reason why I couldn’t conceive and it was the stepping stone I needed to get my IVF started. In May 2014 we had our first consultation with the Assisted Conception team at Guy’s Hospital in London Bridge. I was excited and scared, my husband was anxious and we were both so hopeful that all that we had been through together might lead to this being successful and our dream of becoming parents would come true.
The IVF started. There were lots of injections, new drugs to get used to. I am not a fan of needles but my husband lovingly injected me so i didn’t even have to look at the needles. As well as a physical upheaval, it was a hormonal mess; one moment I was happy, then I was crying, then I was angry, then I would laugh. I had to remind myself that all this might be worth it. When my husband was injecting these hormones into my belly twice a day I would imagine me holding my baby in my arms and the happiness all this could eventually bring. I went for scans and ultrasounds to monitor my follicles and egg production, my ovaries were massive and got to the size of two potatoes! It was very uncomfortable but eventually they were happy I was able to “harvest” 12 eggs, These were then fertilised with sperm and we waited to hear each day how many of our eggs made it to the next stage like it was some weird IVF version of the X Factor. In the end, we had 5 good quality embryos and I was called in to have one implanted. They told us the egg they were implanting was a “grade A” egg and that it was the best one of the 5. We held hands as the egg was carefully placed in the perfect spot in my uterus by a team of three specialists. We were full of anxiety but also hopeful for the future!
A week later, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw those two lines on a pregnancy test I’d been longing for. We did it. I was finally pregnant. Most people don’t tell anyone when they are in the early stages of pregnancy. It is a bit different when you have IVF as everyone is going through it all with you, it would be a bit strange not to tell them for three months if it has worked or not! So we told all our close friends and family, I told my colleagues at work and everyone was delighted for us. We were over the moon and could not believe that we were lucky enough to be blessed with a successful IVF pregnancy. As the weeks and months passed, sickness came and went and we found out we were having a little girl and she was healthy. Everything seemed to be looking good, my belly grew as did my ankles and my boobs. I was happy, content and considering my medical history, it was a surprisingly healthy pregnancy. I loved every moment of my pregnancy, even the awful bits. I was very aware of the little blessing I had in my uterus and how lucky I was to even be having this experience.
My daughter’s birth was the best day of my life. I was so ready to meet her and at 23:14 on Friday 17th April 2015 I finally did. My waters broke at home and I quickly zipped off to the hospital ready to meet my little girl. Labour was very painful, obviously!But I wasn’t in labour for that long considering I was a first time mum. Even though I had the most unnatural way of conceiving my baby, I managed to give birth naturally with only gas and air. We were overjoyed to finally meet our little miracle, who weighed in at 7lbs and 14oz with a tiny little nose and some black fluffy hair. My favourite memory is sitting with my legs in stirrups, being sewn up down below, eating a slice of pizza while breastfeeding my newborn baby girl.
So motherhood was everything I had imagined. There are good times, hard times, funny moments, proud moments, leaky boobs, stretchmarks and exhaustion doesn’t even come close to how tired I was. I was eternally grateful to have the baby I never thought I’d have, we were a happy family of three.
When my daughter turned two in April 2017, my husband and I decided we would try another round of IVF. We still had our frozen embryos and were keen to expand our family if we could. It may not work again, but we didn’t want to waste time and pass up the opportunity if we were ready. We had just started looking into the next round of IVF when I came across a lump in my left breast. I put it down to a blocked milk duct as I had only recently completely weaned my daughter from breastfeeding. Now if cancer teaches us anything it’s that if you find an unexpected lump, get it checked. So I did. And it was.
I had the sense of deja vu sitting in front of a doctor who is telling me I have cancer. There I was again, asking if they thought I was going to die. That side of things seemed so much worse now I had my daughter to consider. I asked them if there was a link to my first cancer, they said no. I asked them how long it had been there and they predicted about 2-3 years. Then it dawned on me – had this been triggered by my pregnancy? The doctors couldn’t conclusively say what triggered it but said that it looked that way. That Alanis Morrisette song “Isnt it ironic” comes to mind.
Luckily for me, my Invasive Ductal Carcinoma was 3cm and treatable. It was a grade 3 cancer so I needed heavy duty chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy, followed by 18 rounds of radiotherapy and I needed to take a drug called Tamoxifen, as it was an oestrogen receptive cancer, that would put me into an early menopause. This time round, it was different. I felt totally different about the whole cancer thing. I went into practical mode, I knew what was coming, I could plan ahead and organise my childcare and needs accordingly. I was used to taking medication and was realistic about what I could do and how long it takes to recover. I was fine with surgery and radiotherapy, a little anxious about chemo but I was confident I was going to be ok.
The one thing I didn’t think would affect me negatively again was my issues with infertility and the early menopause. The doctors have told me I will need to take Tamoxifen for 5 to 10 years and that I shouldn’t think about any more children during that time. I was more upset about the prospect of not being allowed to have any more children more than the cancer diagnosis. I started to get very upset and felt guilty on so many levels about this. I was lucky I already have a daughter, but the very limited choice I was clinging onto from cancer round one was that I may be able to have more children. There are people who aren’t as lucky as me and I felt terrible complaining about this. I feel bad even writing it!
So I ask myself, would I go back and not do IVF, not get pregnant if I knew I was going to potentially be at risk of cancer? I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. My daughter is the biggest blessing I could ever imagine and I would do this one hundred times if it meant that I get to have her in my life. If you want to be a parent, if you have that longing inside and you know that being a mother is what you are destined to do, then don’t let cancer stop you.
I keep having to tell myself, being a parent doesn’t mean it has to be biologically “yours”, you don’t have to carry a baby to be a parent and there are other roads you can go down to achieve your dream. I always saw myself as a mum and I knew it was something that I was destined to be.
Cancer can take away a lot from us, but don’t let it take away your hope for the future you see for yourself. You can get there, you just may not get there the way you imagined.