Surviving Breast Cancer (and Fertility Treatment)

By Jeannine CB — October 23, 2017

4 min read

December 24th, 2012 is the day my life forever changed. It’s the day that I found out I had breast cancer. Merry Christmas to me! I was 36 with no family history and to say my life had just been flipped upside down is an understatement.

I remember sitting in the doctor’s office a few days after my diagnosis, my sister and my husband by my side. Besides being my support, they were basically there to listen because I was in no condition to retain any information. I was hearing words that I never thought I would associate with myself: malignant tumor, mastectomy, chemo, radiation, tamoxifen.
My head was spinning when my doctor looked at me and said, “Do you plan on ever having kids?”

After a moment, I answered, “Ummm, yeah. Sure. One day, I guess. Shouldn’t we be focusing on this whole cancer thing instead of me having a child??”

I was then informed that I needed to make this decision quickly because it had to be done before I started any sort of treatment. At this time, I had no idea what kind of treatment I was going to have. I was encouraged to call the fertility facility so they could give me a rundown of how this would all work. This was all very much new to me.

I should explain. Treatment of my cancer can kill cancerous cells, which is good. What’s bad is it can also impact healthy parts of the body that might be needed to conceive. Although some people who go through treatment do not experience infertility, there are no guarantees that you will be able to get pregnant. This is why when I was diagnosed, the doctor recommended I look into options, and quick.

The fertility coordinator, who couldn’t have been more kind or sweet to me, started to tell me all that was involved. I should mention that I’m not a fan of the OB/GYN and all that those exams entail, which wasn’t helping matters. The hormone shots, the pap smear, the vaginal ultrasounds, and multiple blood draws. I could deal with the shots and the blood draws, but vaginal ultrasounds (plural as in more than one) AND pap smear?? It was all very intimidating and overwhelming. I cried after that call. I balled my eyes out.

When I got home, I talked to my husband and told him I didn’t think I could do it, physically or mentally. He assured me that I could indeed handle it, however, he went on to tell me that he did not marry me to have kids. He told me this was my decision and he would support me no matter what. It was at that moment I decided to put my big girl panties on and go through with it. His selflessness was contagious.

I had my lumpectomy in January 2013, and then started the egg freezing process in February 2013 on Valentine’s Day. It was so romantic to celebrate this day with my husband by getting tested for STD’s (just part of the protocol).

It’s important to add that I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So, you can imagine how being diagnosed with breast cancer and quickly having to go through an IVF cycle were not just icing on the anxiety cake, but sprinkles and candles too!

With the help of acupuncture, my medication, calming music, and the practice of getting regularly scheduled vaginal ultrasounds, I was ready for the egg retrieval procedure. I was fortunate that I only needed to do one round. They retrieved 16 eggs and out of the 16, 11 were viable and out of those, 6 were successfully fertilized. So, we have 6 embryos frozen, which my husband and I are very grateful for.

About 2 years after this IVF cycle, I was getting questioned a lot about when I was going to have a baby. Please note, not “if”, it was always “when”. People had assumed since we had frozen embryos, the logical next step was for me to have a baby. I understand why this was the assumption, but this was not an open and shut case. We needed to dig deep, and do some major soul searching as there was so much to consider. Not just emotionally, but physically too.

My cancer fed off of estrogen, which the tamoxifen (the name of the cancer medication I will be on for 10 years), in theory, is supposed to block. And what happens when you get pregnant? Estrogen is a pretty big major player in that game. My husband and I had to ask ourselves some big questions like, “How big of a risk would I be taking? Would my chances of recurrence go up because of this? Would I be putting my husband in a position to raise a child by himself?” Also, from a hormonal standpoint, how upset would my body be with me? Going on medications, coming off medications, potentially having a baby, going back on medications, etc. That’s a whole lot of hormones to deal with.

Here is the thing: In my opinion, there has not been enough research to prove whether or not coming off the tamoxifen would increase my chances of reoccurrence. Maybe in 10 years, it will be clearer and that’s great for those that will come after me, but with a heavy heart, my husband and I decided it was in my best interest to not carry a baby.

I’m happy to say we are at complete peace with this decision, but I would be lying if I said there isn’t a part of me that is sad that I will never feel life growing inside of me. Nonetheless, and I can only speak for myself on this, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders once I let my family and friends know that I would not be carrying a child.

We did look into surrogacy. Surrogacy is NOT inexpensive. (Neither is cancer treatment by the way). It’s disheartening to me that insurance does not cover surrogacy; especially for women who cannot or should not carry a child due to medical reasons.

We are also asked often if we would ever adopt. If we had never gone through IVF and embryo freezing, I might have considered it. However, I feel a loyalty to those embryos. This might not make sense to anyone but us, but I just feel if we were to attempt to have a child, those embryos should get the first chance.

We have no idea where we go from here. We are fortunate to be godparents and aunt and uncle to some really unbelievable kids. We are extremely involved in their lives, which we couldn’t be more grateful for. I’m so humbled by this whole experience, and ‘regret’ is not something I have ever felt. Not only did we give ourselves options by going through with IVF, I found out that I am way stronger than I ever imagined. I’m a big believer in playing the hand you’re dealt in life. There are some bad hands that we all receive. Those bad hands should be validated, yet they should never make you fold. I’m just playing the hand I was dealt.