The other side: Pregnancy after cancer

Ever since we announced we were expecting a baby, we’ve been met with a lot of emotions from friends and family. Overwhelming happiness and joy top the list, but curiosity is also in there. I’ve had a lot of questions about the details. To be honest, it doesn’t really surprise me – pregnancy after cancer isn’t something that a lot of people really open up about. How long did it take? What did your doctors tell you regarding having more kids? Was this always part of your plan? But by far, the most asked was if it happened naturally or if we needed medical intervention. Since I’m a pretty open book, I’ve shared briefly about what we’ve been through on an individual basis, but figured if a few people were asking – even more might be wondering, and if I can help provide either some answers or even hope – I’m more than willing to talk about it.

Just like everyone else’s fertility journey, our story is our own and unique to us. 

I’ll Start at the Beginning

When I was diagnosed in April of 2018, during those first few weeks a lot of conversations circled around fertility preservation, freezing eggs, and family planning. I can honestly say I don’t remember many of the details because my head was in a FOG of information overload. All I knew was that after laying out all of the options, unfortunately, we didn’t have time to move forward with any of it based on the aggressive nature of my cancer. We had to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. We knew that we were already blessed with Dane, so we decided that if he would be our only kiddo – we were more than okay with that. Of course, there was sadness, but there was also acceptance.

While I went through chemo, there was one major preventative measure taken in the form of an enormous monthly shot to the butt called Lupron. The best way to describe what the medication’s job is this: imagine a huge tornado is coming and your ovaries are blowing in the wind – Lupron shoves them into the storm shelter and locks the door. It suppresses hormones that stimulate egg production and puts you into a temporary “menopause” of sorts – which comes with a whole slew of side effects including bone pain, night sweats, and more. In the end, I have no idea if this drug was what did the trick to help preserve my ovaries, but I’m thankful for it, none-the-less.

Fast Forward 1.5 Years

It’s August 2019, I’ve been finished with active treatment for just shy of a year, had my double mastectomy plus breast reconstruction, and am slowly feeling like “me” again. It took 9 full months post-treatment for my period to return in any normal form – that part is different for everyone, I think mine took a tad longer than average to come back.

One weekend early in the month I had a freak accident and badly broke my arm – landing me in a new doctor’s office and facing yet another scary surgery. We also tested my bone marrow to see if there was anything out of the ordinary as to why it would break so severely – aka cancer. But thankfully, everything came back normal and my mind was put at ease. About a month after that, while I was just starting to rehab – to our surprise, we found out I was pregnant. The timing was weird, but we were overwhelmed with happiness, not only because I really didn’t think it was possible but because it had happened quite easily. 

We made it to when we counted as 8 weeks and went in for our first ultrasound, where we were told that the baby was only measuring 6 weeks – not good news. Though we did see a heartbeat, I knew in my gut the path I was headed down as I’d been there before. A long week later, it was confirmed that the baby hadn’t made it and we had to make some decisions. After two painful failed rounds of taking pills at home, I ended up having a D&C (another surgery.) I was heartbroken and confused – and everyone who said, “but at least you’re able to get pregnant” just made me want to scream.

Coming back from that loss was crippling. I felt like we had finally gotten a glimmer of hope only to have it snatched away. Looking back with clarity, I know that my body was nowhere near physically ready to carry a baby. I was still dealing with chemo side-effects and then also rehabbing a very painful broken arm. I refuse to call the miscarriage a blessing – because that feels cruel, but in the end, I was left hopeful for the future.

Moving On

We spent the subsequent months trying to heal and get back to normal. The holidays came and went, and I dove into improving my health – physically, mentally, and emotionally. We started “trying” for another baby in January of 2020. Like many other women who go through any type of infertility, I dealt with insane cycles, mood swings, and clear issues with hormone imbalances. And then – COVID hit and the world seemed to stop. Everything shifted focus and stress levels rose. We were working from home full-time while entertaining our busy growing kiddo at home and trying to stay calm along with the rest of the world. Adding a family member took a backseat. 

In August, after months of irregularity and frustration, I finally decided to get to the bottom of my issues and scheduled an appointment with a new OBGYN. This was hard in itself because the doctor who delivered Dane, and who had also helped me through my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment had left our network. Starting over with a new doctor who wasn’t familiar with my history was quite scary, but thankfully I found someone who really helped me move forward. 

We ran a lot of tests including a full blood panel, progesterone levels, thyroid levels, and a test that measures ovarian function called an Anti-Mullerian hormone. Almost all of my tests came back within the normal range with the exception of the AMH, which was very low for a woman my age. Labor Day weekend I took a phone call from my doctor explaining that the likelihood of a natural pregnancy was very low. Once again, we felt the crushing blow of hope being snatched out of our grasp. We shared the news with a few family members and felt the sadness wash over but reminded ourselves that I was alive and healthy and that was the most important thing. 

Surprise!

After a long holiday weekend, while back at home getting ready to start the week – I felt a weird sense of intuition to take a pregnancy test. I think I was on day 32 of my cycle, which meant absolutely nothing to me because I was used to cycles ranging anywhere from 15-45 days. But something kept nagging me to just take one – call it mother’s intuition or who knows, but low and behold two pink lines appeared. Four short days after I was told we might want to consider medical intervention – I was pregnant! Imagine the phone call to my doctor telling her that news.

Every single week of this pregnancy I’ve been anxious, and reasonably so. Early on, I had frequent blood draws to test my levels and monitor my progesterone, which we learned was very low and required a supplement. Once we made it to the anatomy scan at 18 weeks, I was finally able to take a deep breath for the first time. 

Feeling my little girl squirm and kick inside my belly is such a reassurance that the sun comes out after the storm. I feel SO fortunate to be in my position, even after all of the muck I had to wade through to get here. I know that not every cancer survivor has the opportunity to carry babies so I don’t take this responsibility lightly. I’ve seen the hurt and pain that my friends go through almost daily and it breaks my heart. With every passing week, I dedicate myself to staying as healthy and as active as possible, to continue sharing positive messages and opening up about this phase of life post-cancer.

If you’re struggling with infertility post-cancer or not, you are not alone. It is my hope that people continue to talk about it, share their stories and give each other support through what is such an isolating time. 

Sending love,

Martha

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Wisconsin wife and mama to Dane (4) and expecting baby girl in May. Navigating life post-cancer. Lover of food, red wine and laughs. Forever grateful for my wonderful life.

2 thoughts on “The other side: Pregnancy after cancer

  1. Your story is so touching that it made me cry, I’m a mother of 3 grown adult children and a grandmother
    Of three beautiful girl and a true believer in god. Also I lost my little sister to pancreatic cancer 4 years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

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