This post is the first in the series I am writing on the subject of chemotherapy and fertility. It has taken me the most time, intentionality, and courage of anything I have written to date.
As always, the experiences and opinions voiced in this article are mine. My story is not the story of all women, but a tiny piece in the large mosaic of the complex issue of fertility. I wrote honestly and openly – mostly because I wish I had the opportunity to read another patient’s account regarding fertility treatment. The intent of this post is not to overshare, nor is it to cast judgment on others who would, or have made, different decisions. I believe that every person deserves the right to make informed choices about their bodies, and that includes reproductive health.
Last week was Infertility Awareness week in the United States. 1 in 4 men and women struggle with infertility. I believe that the more we share our truths about the complex issue that is fertility, we can help mitigate the stigma and end the cycle of isolation, shame, and grief that is so often at the center of fertility struggles.
There’s a small sign that hangs in my office at school that my coworker was gifted years ago. It reads, “just take it one gigantic, earth-shattering crisis at a time.” I love that sign. It’s honest, isn’t it? Because life doesn’t usually hand us challenges in neat packages. Instead, you get something akin to those Russian nesting dolls. You think you’ve tackled your problems, but as you unpack it and delve deeper, you reveal more and more than you saw upon first sight.
In the middle of March, I was prepared for the start of IV chemo. What I didn’t expect was the life-changing decision I’d have to make before it even began.
The day I agreed to start Doxorubicin is a bit of a blur. Thankfully, I had done my homework on the drug, so as my oncologist rolled through the list of side effects during our appointment, I simply nodded in understanding. I knew that fatigue was the biggest side effect, as well as hand and food syndrome, lack of appetite, nausea, and mouth sores. Check, check, check, check, and check.
I paused when he mentioned there were other, less common side effects that I’d need to sign off on. I was handed a plastic electronic pen with which to sign a consent form. This digital consent form was my acknowledgment that, among other things, there is a small but real chance that my monthly infusions could leave me with leukemia, send me into early menopause, or eliminate my fertility. My oncologist recommended in the next breath that I set up an appointment for a fertility consultation. A nurse from the sarcoma program would coordinate with the fertility office and call me to schedule.
I took a deep breath. I signed.
The next day, while in a tech rehearsal for the musical I was choreographing, I received a phone call from the nurse. The fertility clinic couldn’t see me until April, which would be pointless, as any fertility treatments needed to conclude prior to the start of my treatments. Luckily, there was likely to be a cancellation the next day so I could be seen- provided I could call and confirm in the next fifteen minutes before the end of business hours. I did, sent a text to my mom asking her to accompany me the next day, and quickly shot off a flurry of emails to find a sub for my classes.
As rehearsal continued, I sat and struggled to make sense of what just happened. I googled the cost of egg freezing, the process through which my future fertility would be more possibly secured. I tore through the desmoid tumor patient facebook group, searching for the terms fertility and egg freezing. I got a vague understanding that this consultation would need to be the start of a much longer, much more involved process than I had anticipated. The weight of this decision slowly settled in.
While this may seem like a cut and dry decision of whether or not to freeze my eggs, there’s something you need to understand about desmoid tumors. Scientists have no idea what causes them, but there is some evidence to suggest that they’re hormonally driven. My own tumor tested positive for estrogen receptors, which indicates that any change or increase in hormonal activity gives the tumor a chance to grow. It’s a common subject of discussion on the desmoid facebook group. Many women shared that their tumor grew exponentially during pregnancy, presumably both from the change in hormones and the inability to treat the tumor while carrying a baby. An article was just published on March 20 of this year with the partial title “Bedouin woman with a dormant neck nodule that grew explosively during her pregnancy.” And while the risk of infertility after this round of chemo was small, I already had this rare disease, this one in a million tumor. A 1% chance of something going wrong had already proven itself 100% possible.
Was I willing to freeze these eggs if even carrying a pregnancy would be that risky? Every woman whose tumor had grown said they wouldn’t change a thing because it meant they had their beautiful baby, but I couldn’t imagine needing to undergo more intense treatment immediately after giving birth to a child. Surrogacy was another option if I wanted a biological child, but with a teacher’s salary, the $70,000 – $100,000 price tag seemed unattainable, especially when adoption was something I would be willing to consider. And then the deeper question: was motherhood something I even wanted? I never had that deep, unflinching “yes, absolutely” when asked if I wanted kids someday that so many people I know carried with them, as certain as their own name. I didn’t worry too much about it, especially since I wasn’t in a relationship, and I was 29. Wasn’t there time to think this all through?
It turns out, I had even less time than I thought. Treatments take several weeks. I would need to begin immediately.
I had 19 hours to make a decision on whether or not I wanted a biological child, and if so, how much I was willing to pay for it. Because while it was a side effect of my necessary chemotherapy treatment, insurance wouldn’t cover a dime.
With exasperation and fury, I remarked to someone that it felt like a bad crossover season of The Handmaid’s Tale and 24. I could barely see past the start date for chemo. How on earth was I supposed to make a level-headed decision about the rest of my life? I paced back and forth across my living room floor, unable to sit down, frantically searching for the right decision.
This is the unspoken battle of any life-altering diagnosis: it robs you completely and utterly of any sense of security. I cried more in those 19 hours than I had in the year since my diagnosis. Grief is not relegated to death, at its core, it is the deep and painful acknowledgment of loss. At 29, I was grieving the loss of a life I thought I would have all over again. Any sense of freedom is derived from having agency and choice, and I was watching my choices disappear behind variables, side effects, life events I couldn’t predict, and dollar signs. I wondered how much more my heart could continue to break and repair itself.
To be continued.