Cancer infertility can happen as a side effect of cancer treatment, regardless of your gender or age. What if cancer infertility happens at a time in our lives, when due to age, we may have already decided not to have any (more) children? Is it such a problem and loss?
Cancer is about many things and loss is one of them, if not THE key issue.
Losing your fertility, irrespective of your gender, is a big moment in your life, even if it happens naturally. If it happens as a side effect of cancer treatment then it is another loss to content with – whether you have children or not.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer just after my 47th birthday. At that age I had no intention to become pregnant. I felt it was too late and a risk, for several reasons. I was not exactly at peace with it, and I was not yet pre-menopausal. But that was my position then.
I did not know I could lose my fertility from chemotherapy. It was not mentioned when I was first diagnosed and the treatment plan explained. Perhaps assumptions were made, like that…
- I did not care, because of my age or because of the cancer.
- The priority at that moment is treatment and survival.
- Or perhaps the medical staff I saw did not talk about fertility at the point of diagnosis.
As I opted for a second opinion and referral to another hospital, I will never know.
And second-time around, it was different.
The diagnosis and treatment conversation was repeated. Then the breast cancer surgeon asked me whether I was planning on having children. I was surprised – “No,” was my answer. Back came a short reply which I remember as something along the lines of, “Because we could try and save some eggs.”
I was too overwhelmed with everything else to give this exchange much thought – until much later.
A few months later, while I developed early menopause and could not differentiate between my body responding to that or to the cancer drugs, my body and my life had been turned upside down. I could no longer relate to or remember a sense of ‘normal’.
There was no reassuring trust in me, my body, the world – that everything would go back to ‘normal’. Not the ‘old normal’.
Would there be a ‘new normal’? Would I want it? How long before that would be taken away from me?
In all this confusion, mental and emotional pain and anguish the waves of loss, bereavement, anger and fear were huge and deep.
I was losing my identity and my dignity.
But in all this and even now, that one simple question by the breast surgeon stands out, “Do you want to become pregnant?”
He had treated me with respect and dignity, just the way a person should. That’s what we deserve.
With cancer as with so many other life-changing illnesses we lose choices. Yet, he had asked for my opinion.
He offered me a choice, and would have taken that into consideration. I had a say.
It was respectful and it was kind. I will never forget that. And I do hope I will be treated with respect and kindness again and again, cancer or no cancer. Because I do deserve that, just like you do, too.
Losing our fertility in later life is still a change and ending.
It is something we need to find closure for. It impacts us, our relationships and those around us. Our loss may also be the loss of others. It may cause insecurities, loss of confidence, sadness and anger. We may not get the understanding and support we need.
Now, some years later, it does not hurt so much. But there are moments, when I feel like an outsider, when women talk about pre-menopause and menopause.
Chemotherapy fast-tracked me. And some may think, ’Lucky you, at least you did not have years of discomfort, physically and emotionally.′ And sometimes I might think, give me that any day.
But what has happened, has happened. We need to find a way of living with it, that does not defeat us and drag us down.
Cancer infertility like any other loss is something we need to work through and get through, while the memory and pain will always remain with us.
Because losing your fertility in a way that was unexpected and unprepared for, that is a real loss, whatever your age, whatever your gender, whatever your circumstances.
Karin Sieger is a London-based psychotherapist, writer and houseboat dweller. She specialises in support with transitions, endings and the emotional impact of cancer. For more information visit KarinSieger.com. To receive Karin’s newsletter please sign up here.