When I started chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma the chances of it affecting my fertility were slim. My doctor advised me against egg harvesting because she didn’t feel comfortable delaying my chemo and because fertility treatment fails more often than it works. Unfortunately the chemo did not work the first time so we set about preparing me for a stem cell transplant. Some of this prep work included two preliminary rounds of ICE chemotherapy. It was horrible stuff – it affected me really badly – but we knew that the one to be really scared of was coming up next. The big one was a high dose chemo over six days and typically has long-term side-effects. There would be enough time to harvest eggs before then.
I called the specialist as soon as I realised it was an option. I was excited. My period started in three days and I had to be in hospital in five weeks to start chemo. The timing was perfect and it seemed to be like a sign. One of the first things the specialist asked when I called him was if I was married or in a committed relationship. Apparently the chances of my little eggs becoming a real, live baby were infinitely higher if I could store a fertilised egg. My boyfriend had recently broken up with me because life had dealt both of us blow after blow, but I knew that he still loved me and saw a future with me. And I knew that this was the only chance that we could have a child together. It was a strange conversation to be having – to say the least – but he didn’t even hesitate when I asked him to father my child. I think he was actually quite excited about it too – to have a little embryo tucked away somewhere could have been the first positive thing to happen in months. The specialist warned me not to get too excited – we still had to do tests to see if I was capable o harvesting – but I knew better. I knew that this was going to work because it had to work. It had to work like I had to live.
I went to stay at my ex’s house and he took me to get my blood tested first thing the next morning. They were checking my hormone levels to see whether my ovaries had the potential to release eggs. I knew that even if the levels were perfect, there was still a chance that my eggs would not be harvested. But I truly believed that hope and determination would get me through. I had been through a lot and I deserved this. God was going to give me a break. We sat in the waiting room for what seemed like forever, me and my ex-boyfriend filling out forms amongst the married couples and mothers-to-be. I felt awkward and out of place and I really wished I also had someone that I could really share this problem with. Being married meant that it was two of them trying and struggling to have a baby and not just me desperately hanging on to any form of life that was left in me. The room where I got my blood taken was covered from wall to wall in photos of all the miracle babies they had made at this clinic. It was a bit comforting, and a bit creepy.
At 2 that afternoon we went back for the results. This time we were the only people in the waiting room and the doctor came straight out to welcome us. He was a tall, elderly man and was smiling from ear to ear. My heart was still beating quickly but just looking at him gave me a wave of relief and I knew that in a few minutes everything would be fine and I wouldn’t have to worry anymore. We followed him into his room and sat down and his huge smile made me smile.
“It’s not good news,” he said.
It took a second for it to hit me and then I was crying uncontrollably. My usual first reaction to bad news is to think what am I going to do about it? When I was told I had cancer I immediately had a string of questions to help me figure out a way forward. This time I had nothing. The doctor went through my other options – egg donors, adoption – and said I could go back in a couple of years and maybe things would be better. Miracles do happen. But my oestrogen levels were exceptionally low and I am in fact peri-menopausal. He asked me if I’d been feeling hot, dry and emotional. I didn’t know. I couldn’t think at all. I couldn’t speak. I felt like I was a totally different person or perhaps not a person at all. The doctor kept smiling the whole way through, in the way that someone smiles when they’re struggling not to cry.
Back at my ex’s house I suddenly became aware that he had been speaking continuously since we left. He was trying to comfort me but I didn’t want to be comforted, I didn’t want to know about the other options. It was literally the only time in my life that I didn’t want to talk about an issue. The next day I was functioning like a normal person – moving around, eating and speaking again; but it took me a long time before I was ready to talk about my infertility. I didn’t tell any of my friends for about a month.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the benefits of not having children, of which there are many, as well as the possibility of adopting. Both of these had always been options, even before I found out that I couldn’t have my own children, but that is not the point. The point is that I have been horribly cheated. I have had an essential part of me ripped away and it is very, very difficult to redefine my future and myself as a woman. I feel as though my lack of oestrogen makes me less attractive, as if men can instinctively tell that I am infertile and will take no notice of me as a result.
More than that is the fact that my partner in life will have to be someone who is contented not to have his own children with me. As for me, I will never be able to look at a baby and see my eyes, my nose or my knobbly knees. I will never have the miracle of another person growing inside of me or the excitement of a baby’s first kick. I don’t fully understand what it means for my body, physically, to be going through menopause from the age of 22, but my mind is simultaneously frantic and empty.
I refuse to believe that this has happened for a reason. It has happened because I had chemo, because I have cancer. It has stolen away the story of my life I’ve been constructing since childhood, but I am starting to see it has also in a way set me free from it. I know that I will use this to rediscover what I really want from my life.
But first, I mourn.