At a recent baby shower for a friend of mine, I walked into the dining room just in time to hear an acquaintance, an old drinking buddy of mine, say to my then-expectant friend: "I think it's so great you're having a baby. It's so awesome that everyone in the group have babies now. We all grew up together, partied together, and now we all have families. You're the last of us."
I stared at this acquaintance -- someone who I had spent many nights in the past getting drunk with -- and felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I stood there in the corner of the hostess' dining room, feeling not just invisible but enraged. I debated whether or not to speak up, announce myself from the corner and say, "Well, not everyone has a baby, you asshole." I also imagined flipping a table and moon-walking out of the room with my two middle fingers a-blazing.
Given that the day was about my pregnant friend, who was just radiating happiness, I just quickly left the room and realized that my decision to "lose" this woman's phone number well over a year ago was an excellent decision. A true friend of mine would realize that I was in the room.
I'm 33 years old, and the odds of me starting my own family are pretty much slim to none. Every day, I have to accept that fact and learn to live a Plan B life since Plan A never came to fruition. Breast cancer took my mother, and it likely took away my ability to ever become a mother. Before you might think, "You can just adopt," just don't. Adoption is just as expensive, long and drawn out, and many places have restrictions for people like me -- former sickies.
Before I began chemotherapy, at the recommendation of my medical oncologist, I visited a reproductive endocrinologist. I took some steps to safeguard my fertility, such as monthly Lupron shots, to minimize my chance of chemo destroying those parts responsible for babies. In a follow-up visit with that same reproductive specialist, he told me that the Lupron worked, but so far nothing has happened on that front.
A question I have been surprisingly asked a lot: "Did you freeze your eggs?' The answer: no. My insurance didn't cover it, and I have yet to find that money tree (always looking, though.)
Infertility is a common side effect following cancer treatment, not just breast cancer, for women in their child-bearing years. According to an April 2, 2012 Time article :
Each year, more than 120,000 U.S. women under age 50 learn they have cancer, but only 4 percent of women of childbearing age who have cancer are preserving their fertility, according to a study published in March in the journal Cancer. The news puzzles advocates of oncofertility, and suggests that efforts to educate women about ways to safeguard their fertility need to be stepped up
A March 26, 2012 ABC News piece stated:
Just as it is automatic for patients to consult with a plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction after a mastectomy, [Dr. Mitchell] Rosen said fertility consultation should be a part of the process, as well. But, while reconstructive surgery is covered by health insurance, fertility preservation is not, and it can cost as high as $20,000.
Infertility in of itself is a horrible condition to go through when you want a child but your body fails you. Infertility after a disease that completely changes your body and your world is just a whole bunch of a salt in a deep wound. I know what it feels like to have my body to fail me, to feel like I was physically slipping away. It would bring me the utmost joy in the world to bring life into the world. That joy just hasn't happened for me yet. Until then, I plan on being the World's Best Aunt for my brothers' awesome children.
I hope any friends or family members of mine reading this don't think, "Oh gosh, I shouldn't tell Lara about my pregnancy or the birth of my child." Please, don't think that at all. Tell me your good news, and never shield me from the goings on in your life. I just hope that you (the general you) think about what you say around a woman without children or what you you ask her.
"When are you and [your boyfriend/spouse/partner] having children?"
If you find yourself about to ask this question, stop yourself. This is an extremely personal question that you shouldn't ask any woman, not just someone who has been through cancer treatment. According to the CDC, 6.7 million of women between the ages 15 through 44 have the "impaired ability to get pregnant or carry a baby to term." You don't know what's going on in a woman's life, and that question could just be a reminder of something very painful.
Or a woman might not want to have any children, and your question put this person on the defensive, having to explain their life choices. You don't want to defend why you had kids, so a child-free man or woman shouldn't have to defend why they didn't have any kids. Just in general, don't ask that question. When in doubt, don't be a dick.
A great question to ask: "So what's new and good happening in your world?"
Now to make this all cancer-related, don't ever say this to someone who had recently been through treatment for cancer:
"So now that cancer is behind you, are you thinking of having kids?"
No, no, no. First, at least for estrogen-positive breast cancer, women have to take Tamoxifen for five (sometimes ten) years. (I should have been one of those women, but due to the side effects of that medication, I stopped taking it after six months.) Be aware that you may be asking someone who cannot and should not get pregnant about when they are going to start a family. Also, that question may be dismissive of what they have been through - this person might not feel that cancer is "behind" them.
A great question to ask: "How are you doing? What's new?"
Overall, just be a friend. Notice that friend in the corner and be aware of what you're saying or asking.
If you were just diagnosed with cancer and you think you might want to have children in the future, then you should speak with your oncologist about your fertility preservation options.
For more information about fertility options after cancer treatment, please visit Fertile Hope which provides "reproductive information, support and hope to cancer patients and survivors whose medical treatments present the risk of infertility." Cancer treatment is brutal and barbaric, so it's understandable to concentrate solely on the Now and not the Future. If you want to have children after cancer treatment, then fight like hell to make that happen.
Follow Lara Huffman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/getupswinging