There's an unspoken horse trade that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis. You find yourself willing to give up anything and everything in order to stay alive. The only way to describe that feeling, and forgive me for mixing metaphors, is that it's like being on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean: When the water's rushing in, you see all your prized possessions sinking you faster and toss them. Gold, art, jewels, food, clothing -- whatever it is, one by one, you let each piece go. So, when I sat in my doctor's office and was told I had to remove one of my breasts, I chose to take off the other. What I hadn't seen coming is that I'd also have to let go of my fertility.
Two years before this scenario, I went for a regular checkup at my gynecologist. Like always, she would ask after each exam, "What are you doing, Tara? Do you want kids, or not?" And each time, I'd sit there dawdling, never really giving an answer.
When I still felt I had all the time in the world at 35, I tried to negotiate my way into motherhood like this: I had at least five more years of freedom, and by the time I hit 40, I, for sure, would be ready to marry and have kids, or at least have a kid. But here I was at 39 1/2, sitting one more time on that white paper on the exam table, hearing her question and relieved I didn't yet have children, not knowing whether I really wanted to take that path. She gave me a list of fertility experts in the hopes, she said, that I would "exercise all my options." I never thought I'd be that woman faced with making a decision about freezing her eggs. The truth is any real, mindful time I spent with my ovaries was back in college, sitting on the bathroom floor praying I wasn't pregnant. I was having sex, but wasn't yet on the pill, and still experimenting with different types of birth control, including the pull out method. For that to work, the hand of God needs to be involved. And because God can't be seen, there was always anxiety leading up to my period.
I decided not to do anything with the fertility doctor referrals. The short reason is the process seemed otherworldly, and I wasn't interested. I thought if I had a baby, it would happen organically, just like in the movies. What I didn't anticipate was that almost a year after that appointment, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 ER-Positive breast cancer. My doctor told me to get a routine mammogram for no other reason except that I had just turned 40. I had no symptoms, but a few hours after the exam, I got the call telling me that a first suspicious tumor was found. After all the important tests were done and the news delivered, I made the decision to have a double mastectomy. But then came that next hidden step, which was figuring out what to do about the future of my ovaries.
For all our openness in talking about this disease, there's barely any mention that your fertility will be one of the prized possessions you give up in order to keep going. Whether it's because of chemotherapy, a hysterectomy, or, in my case, taking Tamoxifen for 5-10 years, which can push you into early menopause, your fertility is ultimately compromised, and your ability to have a natural pregnancy forever changed.
My breast surgeon insisted I meet with the fertility doctor at the hospital where I was being treated. This was no small feat. The waiting list just to have a consultation with her is months long. But two weeks before my surgery, I walked into her enormous corner office with the huge windows and sat alone for a good 20 minutes. What else was there to do but look around at the clichéd family ski vacation pictures, handshakes with important people, and the many photos of older moms with their babies, which she made happen through precise timing and science?
I know I was supposed to be intimidated. When she came in, she sat down in her towering chair while rattling off about the success of last night's big cancer fundraiser that some celebrities attended. At the same time she was talking, she opened my medical file, scanned it and suddenly went from breezily talking about Sheryl Crow to saying, "You know, you're kinda old to be freezing your eggs,"
"At your age, it doesn't always take, and chances for success are slim. "
"Do you have a boyfriend?, she quipped.
"A partner, a husband, a ...?"
"No, no," I retorted easily.
"Ok, well, we could start you on treatments to freeze your eggs, but we need to first see whether you can even get pregnant. When was your last period?," she asked.
I gave her the date, and she calculated the test would need to be done first thing the next morning.
"I don't want to do that." She stared back at me blank. I think it was because I told her something she never heard in all her years as a fertility specialist.
On the surface, I uttered those words out of sheer defiance. I didn't need anyone to tell me whether I was young and capable. My ego and biology told me I was. But my response pointed to something deeper: I was honest enough to admit out loud that I spent my life quietly making a decision, and here it was, reflected back at me. If I really wanted children, I would have already had them. It seemed disingenuous for me to start fighting tooth and nail because the choice was now being wrestled out of my hands. When I saw her reaction to my practical logic, I suddenly found myself defending before this judge how I've used all my time on earth.
I was probably about 7 years old when I stood there with my straight bangs and light blue 1976 bicentennial t-shirt and declared, "When I grow up, I'm gonna take over your business." I used to tell my dad that all the time. Knowing me, I probably had my arms folded across my chest, fueling my gumption to stare up to his eyes when I said that phrase. It wasn't any type of political statement, it was just who I was, and I guess looking back, who I eventually wanted to be. I had no control over it. I was just driven. And born into this life that way.
I really didn't have any interest in clothing, though he made his living on Seventh Avenue in the garment center. My father had this big desk with gold chrome trim, and from early on, I appreciated all the power he emanated as he stood behind it smoking his Marlboros looking fashionable. I couldn't resist loving all the paper and pens and pencils and calculator that were always scattered about, as if they were suspended mid-thought waiting for his return. Back then, nothing made me happier than going to visit him at work on a Sunday. I would go running down the long aisle of empty desks, and sit at random ones. I'd whip off the typewriter cover, zip in the carbon paper and start typing away. Nothing meaningful, I'm sure, just whatever words were in my head, but I remember feeling very important as I pretended to take a call while looking at the calendar.
I was a horrible student in high school and most of college, which typically isn't a precursor for a high-powered career in anything. I always rationalized this failure by saying I never liked being told what to do, and school, I felt, was the ultimate experience in being micromanaged. But I was raised with that Jewish work ethic that sorta gets beaten into you as soon as you can walk and talk: "If you have a job, be thankful and don't make waves." Another one: "Whatever you want, you must work for it. You won't appreciate it otherwise," and so on. It's all the very stereotypical stuff that gets passed down from generation to generation in a New York City post-World War II family. On the topic of sex, my grandmother once said "If a man could stick it in tree bark, he would." That quote has always stayed with me, even though it's not relevant to this particular story.
After college, I made my way in and out of newsrooms, and at each stop, worked my way up. I've spent my entire adult life surrounded by reporters, TV producers, writers, editors and news executives. Like everyone, I've worked for and with some real motherf-*ckers (sorry, no other word for it), but have also met some gems that are my family in this unstable business. A journalism career, if you have the stomach for it, is addictive and feeds on itself. Each pay increase and title change thrilled me. Every deadline met and breaking news story sucked me in even more. But when you're young and starting out, nobody tells you how much time it takes to get from point A to B to C. Nobody tells you that you're going to need your head more than your mouth because there are so many games and traps and people to navigate for really a million different reasons. And when you start succeeding and moving forward and succeeding again and then again because of your own talent and merit, there's no better feeling. At least for me, there was nothing more exhilarating.
I spent my twenties and all of my thirties trying to meet society halfway. I remember always fielding calls from family wondering who I was dating, if I was dating, and if I wasn't, what was wrong with me. I was occasionally asked if I was a lesbian. When I'd deadpan, "No, I'm not in the closet," the conversation would get dropped for about six months, only to be restarted with a: "Why aren't you on Match.com? People meet and get married, you know." I had the same exchanges with well-meaning friends. Most of them are now married, but predictably, after each rehearsal dinner or chicken dance there would come that dreaded question over a shared glass of wine "So... when do you think you'll be ready to settle down?" I always hemmed and hawed because I didn't know. I was never in a rush, so I never paid attention to that proverbial giant, deafening, ticking clock.
I never felt I chose a career over being a wife and mother. I never looked like those hard women you see still in contemporary movies who are career obsessed and step ruthlessly on everyone along the way. I also haven't lived the other dreamy Hollywood plot line where hardened career woman finds love with a carpenter, chooses a more simple life and suddenly finds happiness. Working and being creative and involved always made me happy. And explaining that was always so hard and somehow made me defensive. I've stood there countless times trying to gin up reasons and words why I was still single and what I was going to do about it. "I feel like I'm ready now," is a bomb I would drop in a conversation when I needed the person I was talking to to shut the f*ck up. My other show-stopping line was: "Yes, I'm looking and meeting some interesting men," which, for dramatic effect, was followed by a teasing smile like I was privy to a decadent dessert my friends could look at, but not taste.
I've always had plenty of sex, which I know is a different type of relationship, but one nonetheless. I'd like to end the myth now that all single women are having great sex all the time. Sometimes we do. But some of it has sucked. Some of it has been disappointing because the fantasy was really better than the reality. And then there are the times when I didn't know any better and miscalculated rushing into bed with a man because I thought it was a great short-cut to intimacy and friendship. It always stung that next morning when he would leave, giving me a half-baked kiss over coffee that really meant I'm now walking out of your life forever. Anyone who says they can shake that off easy is lying.
There are plenty of fault lines running through my life, but even looking at things from that vantage point, I've still always been able to shape it. I've had countless opportunities my mother and grandmothers didn't quite have. I could move around the world in a way that wasn't previously accepted. I could make choices. Tons of choices. I got to travel alone. I went to college and graduate school. I've been able to do the unthinkable and sit at a bar with vampy red nail polish and not be called or thought of as a working girl or whore. I've been able to do all of these things because I had the good fortune to be born at the height of the second wave of the feminist movement, which afforded me the ability when I came of age, not just to access any old birth control, but the pill. That was my ticket to freedom, and helped me create the kind of life I wanted. My reality would be very different place without it. It would include a lot more responsibility and sacrifice or versions of those words that society readily understands and accepts.
I realize some of these anecdotes seem antiquated. But in my house, as a kid in the 1970s, as the youngest daughter of three Jewish girls, it was expected I would grow up and marry and have kids. My parents didn't limit me and say that's all I could do, but it was assumed I would, at a minimum, accomplish that. This was always an uneasy place for me. I didn't quite buy the myth, though it wasn't for a lack of trying. I'd like to tell you I was a non-conformist. But really, it was my intuition. It's what prompted me when I was 7 years old to make decisions about what path I was taking long before my conscious mind was even aware. Don't get me wrong, I've had moments where I so badly wanted to be normal and have a great boyfriend or husband, but for some reason, didn't get around to choosing one. And as I kept living, my reality started looking more and more different from my friends', and so outside of what my parents had hoped for me. I was so off-road that the only place left to go was to stop apologizing for it.