Recently I heard a podcast featuring a well-known profession runner named Lauren Fleishman. She made several strong statements against giving advice about pregnancy and parenthood while pursuing competitive running. “Everyone is just an N of one,” she said. Meaning that women’s experiences are so different it is impossible, and even irresponsible, to give others advice about how pregnancy and parenting affect competitive running. I agree and appreciate her candor. The following post is my experience, an N of one. I share this with the intent of promoting solidary and connection among families facing illness and challenge; this is not written to give anyone advice or make political statements…
Right before my diagnosis, my husband and I just started trying to get pregnant with a 3rd baby. Fortunately, we did not. I escaped the unimaginably difficult decision that some women must make between terminating a pregnancy versus a delay in cancer treatment. This situation is not uncommon. I have both patients and friends that have faced this exact decision. One woman I knew who made the brave decision to delay treatment ultimately left behind this world and 3 very small children. Her story doesn’t fit in well to the political rhetoric of abortion in America.
Those that know me now might be surprised to discover that for almost 10 years of my life I was a pastor’s wife, mostly in the conservative Southern Baptist Church. I finally got divorced at age 30, after delaying separation for many years, partly because of my role in the church. Now, my husband and children are God’s greatest blessing in my earthly life, and divorce delivered that blessing to me. This is complicated. I am a person of deep faith who also carry’s the burden of skepticism about the American church. I believe the salvation story of Jesus, but I am also convicted that our perception of God is a mere reflection in a mirror of a shadow. Scripture tells us this in practically every book of the Old and New Testament. I have not found my church community yet. I wish I could see it all in black and white, but I cannot.
After I became pregnant with Aden, there was never a world I could imagine where I would have terminated a pregnancy. I have always voted for women’s right to choose and believe that abortion is a moral issue that a woman herself, not the US government, should define. But when I saw Aden’s heart beating on the ultrasound and felt him kicking, I knew I could never terminate the pregnancy. At 6 weeks of pregnancy, after the first of three major bleeding events, doctors discovered a sub chorionic hemorrhage. There was a large blood clot in my uterus that would either grow and terminate the pregnancy, or it would reabsorb or bleed out and the embryo would be viable. Then we had a second scare on Aden’s 16-week ultrasound which showed abnormal calcium deposits in the heart associated with Downs Syndrome. We did get genetic testing, but I knew the results would not matter. Aden was going to be our child no matter what and he was ultimately born a completely healthy baby. One year later I was pregnant with Connor, and this is when the story changes.
With Connor I elected to get early genetic testing 6 weeks into the pregnancy. And now, with a baby at home to nurture, I did not have the same conviction that the results would never matter. Fortunately, genetic testing was normal, and Connor was also a healthy baby. But, as most mothers-to-be do, I had to think about the what ifs. I don’t know what I would have done if Connor’s genetic testing was abnormal for something that would have required life-long intensive resources. I only knew my heart was set to nurture and resource Aden. I could now imagine a world where I might consider terminating a pregnancy which, given my personal history and prior moral convictions, is shocking. What I learned about myself was that the instinct to love and protect my child was a stronger force than moral conviction. Yikes. I am not saying that is good or bad, I don’t know, it just is. By the grace of God, I count myself a blessed woman to never have faced this decision.
In the last 2 weeks, I have gotten incredibly good news from both my surgical pathology reports and my oncology doctors. I don’t need chemotherapy or radiation. I am pretty much done with my treatment. My charge now is to live my life and manage my anxiety about the very low chance of recurrence responsibly. I did discuss having another child with an oncologist. He said it was probably ok, but because my particular cancer was fueled by estrogen and pregnancy is a high estrogen state, the increased risk is not zero. He does not know what this risk is. Nobody does. There are a few studies on pregnancy after breast cancer which suggest it might be ok, but the numbers in these studies are small. As someone who is trained to read medical literature, I cannot hang my hat on this. We have decided not to have another child. I am driven to this decision by an inescapable instinct to protect and be here for my two children. Even if the increased risk is low, I cannot do it. Just like complex decisions about abortion, with or without cancer, this decision is right for our family. We are just an N of one. My husband and I still see an empty chair at our dinner table. We both ache with a sense that our family is not yet completed. Fortunately, we are both flexible personalities. We plan to start researching adoption options next year.
Through this process, God has covered us in a blanket of mercy and blessing. I have not had to face the gut-wrenching decisions of many younger women with cancer. I am still recovering from surgery, but this will pass. I get to continue a life with my family that is so beautiful, it frequently breaks my heart with joy and the knowledge that I could not possibly have deserved or earned this.