Yesterday I was scrolling through my Facebook Newsfeed when I saw an image of a mother with pink hair breastfeeding, captioned with the title “Mom Prepares for Cancer Battle with Final Breastfeeding Photo Shoot.” Countless memories and thoughts streamed through my mind, and it was a moment or two before I realized I was holding my breath.
Since my breast cancer diagnosis on October 1, 2013, I have met other women in their 30s who were (and are) battling the disease. This was the first time, however, that I heard of a woman whose diagnosis story so closely resembled my own. Did she endure a mammogram full of milk, spraying the machines like a Superbowl-winning quarterback squirting champagne around a locker room? Did she silently cry herself to sleep when the doctors told her to stop breast feeding immediately? Did she call the pediatrician’s office in a panic, not knowing the first thing about buying formula? Did she endure the pain and discomfort of being engorged, trying to ignore her body’s pleas to release the pressure and let the baby nurse? Did she feel robbed by the abruptness of it all, and thrown off by the drastic changes to routine and expectations?
I haven’t thought much about breastfeeding since it ended, because I remain raw with emotion about it. It reminds me of when my body was familiar, functional, and–if I’m being completely honest–fun. Now I have two dense rocks attached to my chest that don’t serve any function except to fill out my clothing. Alone my babies while feeding them, or reading a stack of books to the older kids while nursing…those actions defined mothering in our house for many years.
Seeing that photo threw me back to when Baby #1 was born. I had placenta previa, and she was delivered at 35 weeks via c-section while I was under general anesthesia. As she remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I was alone in my room and attempting to pump breastmilk for the first time. I remember my mother-in-law calling on the phone, as if some sixth sense told her to reach out to me at that exact moment.
“How’s it going?” she innocently asked, right before I burst into tears.
“I don’t know what I doing” I sobbed, “and this machine feels like a torture device.”
I can’t remember what she said to alleviate my anxiety, but I do remember hanging up the phone, ringing for a nurse, and getting a crash-course on what I could do to help my sweet baby girl who was not permitted to nurse yet (due to medical complications.) By the time she was able to breastfeed, I was comfortable with the pump and using it so efficiently that the nurses gently suggested I stop pumping every three hours, as storing that amount of milk was going to be a challenge.
That began a special relationship between me and my babies, a role as parent and food source that I was honored and proud to fill. Seven years later, not only did my breasts abandon me by requiring mastectomies, but they couldn’t even finish the job for Baby #4. It was the ultimate betrayal.
I suppose the brusque manner in which breastfeeding ended was preparation for what was ahead, for breast cancer’s role in my life. I wasn’t ready to let breastfeeding go, but there wasn’t a choice in the matter. I didn’t choose to have breast cancer, or be BRCA2+, yet this was the path in front of me.
I read the post about the pink-haired, breastfeeding, breast cancer-diagnosed mom, and I hope with all my being that she finds the road we travel lined with support and encouragement, empathy and understanding. This is a club that no woman wants to be a member of, but when we combine our resources and our strengths, there are ways to adapt.
Baby #4 was a conscientious decision between my husband, Jason, and I. When we were parents of three, I had asked him if he would consider adding another child to our brood. He responded, “I feel like someone is missing, like our family isn’t complete yet.” I’m thankful for my son because of who he is. I’m grateful for my son because nursing him likely saved my life. I recognize that I was more in tune with my body when I was breastfeeding than when I was not. My prognosis and course of treatment could have been very different if I hadn’t been breastfeeding at that point of my life.
I suppose most parents wonder if they are ever giving enough of themselves to their children, tempered with the right amount of love, nurture, discipline, and guidance. We try to control so much of the world in order to provide stability and structure for our kids. Sometimes things happen that are unexpected and challenging, but we find a way to continue on, and it all weaves together to become a personal story. In the end, the privilege of parenthood is a blessing, no matter what we encounter along the way.