Christina Applegate is on the cover of People Magazine this week next to the headline: “Baby after Breast Cancer.” She shares some candid details that other survivors will relate to, including how self consciousness she felt about her reconstruction from a double mastectomy even in the delivery room and how she faces some tough decisions about removing her ovaries now.
But what survivors who have children will recognize most of all is the unspeakable joy and gratitude Applegate feels when she holds her little girl.
Having a baby is a blessing, but having one after cancer is a downright miracle.
There is so much stacked against young survivors who want to conceive. Some of us have oncologists who failed to emphasize fertility preservation before treatment began. Some of us don’t have the cash, the partner, or stamina needed to take those fertility-saving steps.
Yet the desire to become parents can be so strong that we will stare down even the toughest odds. One survivor I spoke to was so driven to preserve her fertility before she underwent a radical hysterectomy for cervical cancer that she racked up $9,000 in additional medical bills.
“I told my fiancé that he had to give a semen sample tomorrow,” she said. “He looked at all the fees, and was like, ‘We don’t have the money for this. We just bought a house. We have the wedding. We don’t know if you will be out of work.’ I said: ‘I will figure that out. You just go and give them the semen.’ We got seven frozen embryos. I call them my maybe babies.”
After the heartbreak of cancer and the dread of infertility, parenthood becomes that much sweeter. David was certain he and his wife would not be able to have children after his three rounds with testicular cancer. “I have one testicle, so I was batting one handed. And then I didn’t know how the chemo affected sperm count in the remaining one. So when we were able to conceive my daughter naturally, it was absolutely terrific. I felt like a normal human being again. Playing with her is one of the simplest, most beautiful things I do.”
When my oncologist told me chemo would probably make me infertile, it felt like one of our dreams died right there in his office. My husband and I were luckier than most. I was nine-months pregnant when I was diagnosed, and I gave birth to a healthy boy. But both of us had imagined having two children. In our minds, our family included four people. Now cancer was robbing us of that vision, making it seem that someone would be forever missing.
People told us we could adopt, but we wondered what agency would welcome a mother who had an aggressive form of cancer. And so we relished each moment with our son, thinking this was our only chance. We gave away the infant car seat when he grew out of it, we passed along his baby clothes to his cousins, and we watched longingly as our friends moved on to second pregnancies.
But as time passed and my scans came back clean, I started researching the possibility of conceiving again. I tracked down the latest studies that concluded pregnancy after breast cancer did not appear to affect survival rates. I got my hormone levels tested to see if after months of chemo-induced menopause I even could conceive. And I started lobbying my medical team for their approval. When I made it to the two-year mark without a recurrence, they gave me the green light.
Three and a half years after my diagnosis, I delivered my daughter Fiona. I know how lucky I am. I know women who were not able to conceive after chemo. I know women who didn’t live long enough to try.
It is this knowledge that makes having Fiona one of the biggest gifts of my life. Watching her grow, holding her when she cries, seeing her play with her big brother—I know how precious all of these seemingly ordinary moments are.
The first night after she was born, the nurse brought her to my room so I could feed her. She looked so small wrapped up in her blanket, so delicate and beautiful. I brought her soft cheek up to mine and I whispered in her ear, “Thank you for coming.”
I still say that to her five years later.