In February 2016, I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. I was 33-years-old, and when the doctor asked us if we wanted to take any steps to preserve our fertility, we both firmly declined — not because we didn’t want more children. In fact, we had been planning on trying for our third right around that time.
We chose not to go forward because doing so would have delayed treatment, and I would have had to go through hormone therapy to harvest eggs. Having done that in the past, and knowing how difficult it was both physically and emotionally, I wasn’t prepared to be in that position while also living under an aggressive cancer diagnosis. Besides, we already had two beautiful children we reasoned, and in vitro fertilization is expensive. We weren’t sure we’d even be in the financial position to afford fertility treatments in the future or if I would even want to be subject to another difficult pregnancy post-cancer. Assuming there was a life post-cancer.
We obviously had a lot on our plate already. Instead, we went full steam ahead with over a year’s worth of chemo, surgery, and radiation. My body was beaten and abused by the war with disease and we suffered deep emotional and financial pain. Those were some dark days, but we made it through with a lot of love and support from friends, family, and even strangers.
Now I am two months past having received my last dose of radiation. I will have reconstructive surgery on my breasts in the fall, but the hard part, the fighting part, is behind me. What also lies in the dry wasteland of my past is my ability to bear children. Of course, we knew this was likely the outcome of treatment, and we made that choice. But today, as we start to sort through baby things to give to friends and to sell in a garage sale, the full weight of that decision is upon me.
I have been a woman unable to conceive children, a pregnant woman, a woman who has miscarried, and a woman who has birthed two children. Our two girls were both little miracle babies, popping up after hope was lost and years of trying and medical intervention yielded nothing. Now, I am reunited with the pain of not being able to conceive. Only this time, I have firm, nippleless lumps where breasts should be, and a short boy-cut hairstyle from fresh post-chemo growth.
Looking at the pile of toys spread out in the living room that are waiting to be sorted feels like a thousand knives in my heart. Cancer took so much from us — it is at once exhausting and devastating to think of the love we have left to give that will not be spent on another baby in our home. Of course, we love our children, and they are more than we ever could have hoped for. But I think it’s normal to grieve the end of this season, the end of the days of my life where I will be able to bring new life into this world. Life created by the blending of our souls. The end of that impossibly sweet bond born out of pure love for a perfect, innocent, brand-new child.
As mothers, we all come head to head with this day. For some of us, the decision is easier. My girlfriend who claimed to be done at child No. 2 gleefully gave her baby items away after baby No. 3. For some of us, the acceptance is heart-wrenching. Some of us have lost children. Some of us will never experience carrying children of our own. Some of us will have that road come to an end too soon, like a sidewalk that abruptly ends at the edge of a cliff. My legs knew enough to stop walking, but my heart fell clean off the edge.
Someday I will make peace with the baby who never came home. Someday I will make peace with the dream, the wish, the hope for one more chapter. Tonight, though, I’ll let my husband sort through the toys, and tomorrow I will work on repairing the broken pieces of my heart. Bit by bit. One day at a time.