Giving birth was a different experience with each of my children. With Baby #1, I was under general anesthesia for an emergency c-section at 35 weeks because of placenta previa. I remember laying in the operating room on my back, thinking about how uncomfortable I was, and then, an instant later, waking up in recovery with a flat stomach. It wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned birthing a newborn, and her transfer to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s NICU made me feel rushed and overwhelmed, even if well cared for.
When I was pregnant with Baby #2, my water broke at my parents’ dinner table. I scarfed down my meal before telling anyone it was time to go to the hospital, because I would have been damned before giving up that meal. I was hungry! With the wonders of modern medicine, a simple catheter to measure womb pressure was utilized to prevent a repeat c-section. I fell in love with the epidural and told jokes while staying conscious for this baby’s arrival. He was no sooner delivered than I was saying to Jason “This was fun! When are we going to do it again?”
With Baby #3, my so-called “friend” the epidural wore off, causing me to pull a groin muscle, and having me scream that I would never, ever make fun of another hockey player on the DL again. He was also a present for Baby #1, as they share a birthday, five years apart. (Side note: it’s very hard not to laugh when people discover their birth dates and ask me if my 5th grader and Kindergartener are twins.)
After Baby #4, my relationship with epidurals was irrevocably broken when it fell out of my spine. I delivered my biggest child, at over 9 pounds—and with a shoulder width to make any linebacker jealous—without the benefit of drugs, even when I didn’t dilate fully and my cervix needed to be manipulated.
When our bundle of joy made his appearance, my husband looked at me with eyes full of love and emotion. I calmly told him “Take a good look at these four walls around you, babe, because you are never seeing the inside of this room again.”
There, in quick summation, are my four birthing war stories. We had struggled with infertility issues before conceiving Babies 1 and 2, like so many other couples before and after us. Once we literally got the process down to a science, Baby #3 came along much quicker than we had anticipated, and I was the one that advocated for having Baby #4 to “round things out.” I had heard from other moms that “You will know when you’re done” and that proved true for me. Starting and maintaining a family is personal and gratifying, if costly and, most always, exhausting. Even with the ups and downs of growing and nurturing a family, I’m happy in my role as mom and caregiver. I enjoy life with my posse in tow and in a house full of laughter.
Which is why, after receiving my breast cancer diagnosis and testing positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation, I was struck with gratitude for Baby #4. Not only because breastfeeding him was what helped me discover the first lump, but also because I felt our family was complete, and there would be no what-ifs going forward.
Breast cancer treatment for women can cause infertility. Women with the BRCA2 mutation are likely to develop other types of cancers, including ovarian. The typical recommendation is to remove the ovaries after the age of 40. I was 36 when my breast cancer was discovered. After chemo-induced menopause began, I decided to have a total hysterectomy.
I could have had just my ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed. That is what my oncologist recommended. But if I did that, it would mean ten years on the drug Tamoxifen, as opposed to five years on Anastrozole. The side effects for both medications are similar and intense, but five years is five years. It would also mean carrying an uneasiness, wondering if my uterus, which, at that point, felt dispensable, would end up being another body part to betray me. It had to go.
Obviously, women with similar medical diagnoses need to make the decisions that work best for them and their lives. Maybe it is vain and egotistical my kids losing me during their formative years would be difficult for them. Must I sacrifice body parts that aren’t cancerous as well? There is a small chance that I can still develop cancer where those parts once resided, just as cancer can still form where my breasts once were. But the odds are significantly less likely thanks to my skilled surgeons.
I don’t regret the decision. Am I happy with the sexual dysfunction, the extreme, unpredictable hot flashes, the mood swings, or the incapacitating fatigue? No, I could most definitely do without it all. Osteoporosis has also become one of my biggest complications. A few of the other side effects could take a walk, too, and I’d be grateful. But there is a peace of mind that came with the surgery that certainly wasn’t there before. My anger and frustration are directed at cancer itself, and towards the genetic mutation that causes it. If managing these side effects means watching my children create their own families years from now, it will most definitely be worth it.