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Alice Crisci

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Pregnancy After Breast Cancer

Posted: 10/14/2011 9:40 am

I knew almost immediately I was pregnant. The first sign was my aversion to coffee, a flavor I've loved for 20 years and bacon, a flavor I rediscovered during chemo. My belly bloated with such a full feeling I could only eat a few bites of food for meals and I started belching -- something I abhor and rarely ever experience.

I walked into the grocery store and smelled everything all at once. The nausea was insane -- I even dry-heaved twice -- a rarity considering I've only actually vomited a handful of times in my whole life. I was peeing every hour and started napping each afternoon.

One morning, I woke up at 3:30 to a pulling sensation in my lower abdomen -- according to the two dozen websites I was perusing on early pregnancy, I learned my uterus was expanding. My face also started breaking out in what looked like a small, pimply rash and my belly started itching. Either all these symptoms were a fluke to occur all at once or I was pregnant.

Sure enough the day I was supposed to get my monthly flow, I got a plus sign on a home test. I was pregnant... against all odds.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31 years old, I learned chemotherapy might leave me infertile. I didn't know how many eggs I'd have left after treatment or if any remaining eggs would be chromosomally viable. Ever since I was a little girl, I've known I wanted to be a mother. That's why I put the $20,000 cost of fertility preservation on my American Express card.

For two weeks, I injected hormones into my abdomen to stimulate my ovaries into producing more follicles (which house the eggs) than they normally would per month. Within a week, my abdomen was so swollen I imagined I looked about four months pregnant. The extra hormones made me happy. For a brief time during a scary, cancer crisis, I focused on the life I would someday bring into the world by implanting embryos back into my uterus or the uterus of a surrogate.

Exactly three years to the day of my diagnosis, my sister and I drove away from the first home I owned in Redondo Beach, Calif. to a rental property in Boulder, Co., where I was to start my new life since surviving cancer. In those three years, I lost so much -- sure the obvious losses when you have breast cancer like your boobs, nipples, ability to breastfeed and my hair. But I also lost my company, my boyfriend, my house, my independence, and for a while I even lost my sanity.

But, none of the losses I experienced from having cancer could prepare me for the loss I experienced while four weeks and one day pregnant. At four weeks pregnant, I looked at that plus sign on the stick no less than two dozen times. Was it real? I knew what I felt, but until I saw a doctor and had a blood test confirm my symptoms, it felt unreal.

I had only shared the news with my boyfriend the night before -- I kept my symptoms to myself for two weeks because I didn't want to freak him out unnecessarily if it ended up being nothing. He freaked out about the very thing I knew he would -- "How are we going to afford a kid?" After a two and a half hour conversation, we agreed we wouldn't tell either side of the family until we had a plan and we both hoped that plan included finding out we were having a girl -- the first girl grandchild for both sides of the family.

I went to bed ecstatic -- everything was going to be ok. The child was conceived in love and the child would be immeasurably, loved by both of her parents.

Just 24 hours later, I felt even more change. My stomach was burning and felt more uncomfortable that before and I started spotting dark brown blood. I freaked out, but read online that spotting is normal in early pregnancies. I went to bed calm, but cautious.

I woke the next morning incredibly sad. Before I even stepped foot out of bed, I noticed how deeply sad I was feeling. I wanted to pee on another stick just to confirm there was pregnancy hormone in my urine. I screwed up the test though because instead of pee, I passed large blood clots and was horrified. The most respected pregnancy websites mentioned a 50/50 chance I would miscarry. I had a 50/50 chance of being left infertile from chemo and now I had a 50/50 chance of losing the only pregnancy I might ever experience.

For two hours, I passed clots between the size of a quarter and a silver dollar. I was freaking out and called every doctors office in Boulder to see if someone could fit me in that morning. Office after office told me the same thing: "We aren't taking new Medicare patients." When I asked if I could pay cash, I was told the same thing, "We aren't taking new Medicare patients." So you are discriminating against me for having the wrong insurance? When that question was met with the same response, "We aren't taking new Medicare patients," I texted my boyfriend that I needed to go to the ER.

I waited as long as possible to urinate because each time I did I passed clots bigger than the last. I was holding on to a glimmer of hope that maybe we were pregnant with twins and I was only losing one. That hope evaporated when I passed the largest clot about the size of my palm, along with a small stringy like tissue. I came out of the hospital bathroom and felt empty. I collapsed into my boyfriend's arms.

Four hours later, the ER doc confirmed my worst fears: there was no more pregnancy. I sobbed harder than I sobbed when I was diagnosed with cancer. My boyfriend held me as I shook and cried that I wasn't a woman -- I had no breasts and now my reproductive system failed me. I felt as though I fail at being a woman. I felt ugly and empty and incredibly sad.

Within 48 hours our lives changed twice.

The clots continued for two days. I was stunned by how fast the feeling of pregnancy goes away when you miscarry. I hate feeling what I am feeling now -- normal. My stomach is no longer bloated. It doesn't feel full. I felt beautiful when I was pregnant despite the pimply rash all over my face and I feel ugly now that I am not.

I know I'm supposed to be relieved that I can get pregnant. I don't feel relieved because I don't know if any of my eggs will result in a full-term birth. And until I was actually pregnant, I didn't know the miracle I was missing. I didn't know just how beautiful it is to go through this naturally. I have profound, new empathy for infertility patients who face rounds and rounds of IVF to experience pregnancy through injections, petri dishes and doctors instead of love-making.

My boyfriend tried to reassure me by saying "If it was this easy to get pregnant, then it will be easy in a couple years when we are more ready." Here's what he doesn't know: I'm already 35-years-old; the year a woman's fertility makes a sharp decline as her incidence of miscarriage, down-syndrome and multiples rises due to chromosomal abnormalities. And that's for women who haven't had chemotherapy. I could enter premature menopause at any moment. The 11 frozen eggs I have left might not produce one child of his.

Will he want to raise my sperm donor's baby? Will he want me to get an egg donor so we can each have a biological child? How and when do I start reconciling that we may never get to have a biological child together -- 50 percent him and 50 percent me? Do we even have a future together or will this experience make him realize he doesn't want to raise any children with me?

My whole body feels depressed. I literally feel like I am drowning in grief. I am grieving for what almost was. I am grieving for what might never be. The loss is so much greater than all the losses I experienced from cancer combined. I was standing in line at the grocery store and the clerk was attempting small talk. It reminded me of the days when I was just diagnosed with cancer, so aware of my tumor at every minute of every day. With people all around making small talk or complaining about the weather, I wanted to scream, "Will you shut up?! I have cancer!" and now I wanted to sob, "I just lost my pregnancy!"

Like Seth Rogan says in the film "50/50" about a young adult man facing a 50 percent chance his cancer would kill him that year, "If you were in Vegas, 50/50 is like the best odds!"

At any given moment, I can feel hope or heartbreak. 50/50. Just for now, I choose hope... hope that I will become a mother soon. I don't need Vegas odds to tell me I'll be a damn good one.

 

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