If a cancer diagnosis isn't enough to think about, have you thought about having kids?
Getting to 36 and having not started a family is not so unusual these days. I certainly have plenty of friends like me. Some of us have made a decision not to, some of us just haven’t gotten round to it yet…no that’s not right. That makes it sound like an afterthought. For me, at least, it definitely hasn’t been an ‘afterthought’. It was just that things hadn’t come together yet. I hadn’t been in the right space or the right relationship. And I don’t regret that. My life would certainly have been very different if I had started a family before – and despite the whole cancer bit, I’m glad it’s not.
I definitely never ruled out having a family though; in the back of my mind I thought I would want a family one day – if the time was right, the space, the relationship. I guess I was waiting to be overcome by that need to procreate I’d heard of. It just hadn’t happened yet. I knew that I would definitely regret not having one if I didn’t, but there was part of me that was worried that it may all pass me by and if that happened I would be sad.
And then I met Steve. Sweet, gentle, caring Steve. And even though the possibility of a family seemed more likely, it was still a long way off; it was not yet quite the right time, and we hadn’t even really put words to it. We made the odd ‘if we ever have kids’ type comments (or I did), but really we were still learning the ins and outs of sharing a life together.
And then cancer happenned. And we had lots to face up to. I became pretty insecure. It was all too soon. We’d only just moved in together, how can I expect him to care for me through all this? So soon? Most people have years of commitment and a shared life binding them together before they have to face this kind of demon.
And then I learnt about the impact chemotherapy could have on my fertility. And yet again, we were forced to face something before we were ready.
I had assumed that one day, after a year or so of cohabiting, I’d just come off contraception and we’d see what happened. The IVF route had petrified me – so stressful and heartbreaking. I have such admiration for my friends who have been through it, but I never thought that I was strong enough to do the same. I figured that if it didn’t happen naturally, I would accept that it wasn’t meant to be and the decision would be made for us. We’d get another dog.
But suddenly, faced with losing any choice all together it seemed so important to me to take some control – to have some say over what happens to the rest of my life when this is all over. Just in case.
And, cruelly, it put more pressure on our relationship. We were forced to face decisions and have discussions we were not planning to have just now – decisions and discussions that other couples get to make and have in their own time, when they feel ready to.
Because originally it was just about me. Me and my eggs. And keeping them safe for another time in the future. But we learnt that frozen embryos had a far greater chance of success, and without warning Steve was drawn into the decision making process too. I needed him to feel like he had a choice in this, but at the same time was nervous about what he would decide and how I would feel about it. And it wasn’t an easy decision. He not only had to decide if he even wanted kids, he also had to make the decision knowing that if he changes his mind at any stage, I will be unable to use my embryos at all and may have no other options available. I was, as they say, quite literally putting all my eggs in one basket. But what is life, if it’s not a gamble? Why do we get involved in any human relationship if we don’t take a risk?
So we did.
The fertility process in itself is stressful. And that’s when you’re not facing it with a head that is still processing the implications of having stage 3 cancer. My brain was so full of such a rollercoaster of thoughts it was hard to keep hold of anything. My first injection ended in tears of frustration because my trauma-addled brain was unable to make sense of the instructions and I injected two days worth in one go. In fact I made so many mistakes and was so scatter brained that I had to return to the clinic every day. I remember crying when I saw a funeral party arrive at a wake at the pub near my house: ‘Somebody’s died!’ I wailed to my dog at the crossing. I left my last scan before retrieval and ten minutes later could not remember any of the instructions I’d just been given about my trigger injections and blood thinners (that pulmonary embolism was still following me around, after nearly ten years).
I was a little taken aback though, by how sad I felt when my initial scan showed that I only had 2 follicles. I tried to ignore it, but I felt both like a failure and like my body had let me down – it had failed me yet again, or I’d failed it. Or both. It wasn’t ideal that I’d only had my implant removed less than a week before, but still…you take your fertility for granted. I mean we spend so much of our lives trying not to get pregnant - it seems ironic and cruel that it can equally be so difficult to do so.
And then when my next scan showed I now had 8 follicles, I was so excited I cried. And this surprised me. Yes, I was sure I wanted to preserve my fertility, but considering where we were at, and everything else that was going on in our lives, up until that point, I’d maintained an emotional distance to the process itself. As in, it was something that needed to be done, and something we could think more about at the end of this current trajectory. So I was completely surprised by how clucky I would get. Maybe it was the hormones, or just the whole process: sitting in waiting rooms with excited and eager couples.
It seemed even more cruel that the first time I would think to myself ‘I do want to be a mum’, the first time I’d experience that feeling I’d been waiting to be gripped by that would help me know that a baby was something I actually wanted, I wouldn’t be able to act on it.
Needless to say I arrived at the clinic in Cambridge for retrieval, feeling really sad. It was a beautiful, crisp winter’s morning. Frosty. Blue. Clear. Sunny. The clinic itself was a grand old estate, with ancient oak trees and ha-has and solid oak walls and deep red wall paper and burgundy carpets. And everyone was so nice to me.
Because of my blood thinners they chose to put me under completely to minimise risk. And when I came round they’d only managed to retrieve 4 eggs and a cyst. The girl in the bed next to me got 11. Eggs…not cysts.
And as the day wore on, the potential mothers around me were discharged with instructions for the next stage: implanting. I was discharged with a pat on the back and an ache. I cried all the way home.
The next day though, the clinic phoned. ‘Three of your eggs have fertilised. We’ll phone you tomorrow with an update’. The day after that we had three healthy embryos developing well, all considered good enough quality to freeze. I was on the bus. I cried again.
But then the chemo shelter skelter started, and my future fertility was ‘ticked off’ and buried for the another time (2-3 years post chemo my oncologist informed me).
Until I got my first period in 9 years (I had been on the implant since my PE in 2011) during one of the worst days of my first chemo cycle. And alongside my pins and needles, my intense nausea and painful arm I was suddenly thinking about all the women who had their eggs retrieved on the same day as I had, who had been waiting for this first bleed in order to start their next round of injections ready for implantation. I imagined how excited they must now be feeling, nervous even…at a time when I couldn’t be more aware of how toxic my body was and how far away having a family still is for me.
But. I have…no…we have 3 healthy little embryos waiting in Cambridge for another time: a time when my body is cancer free and chemo free and this year of our lives will seem like a distant memory. And I mean, if we can survive cancer, a baby should be a walk in the park. Shouldn’t it?