Four Days to Decide My Family’s Fate

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, nothing is off the table. I wish I knew that cancer touches every single aspect of your life: work, relationships, pets, diet, schedule, marriage, fertility, traveling and so much more. I am 31 years old and I was diagnosed with Stage 1, invasive DCIS that was HER2+. I start 12 weeks of chemotherapy soon with one year of Herceptin (to battle HER2+) and then I will have three weeks of radiation and five years of Tamoxifen.

Fertility was not even a thought in my mind when I was diagnosed. I wanted to fight this cancer head on — undergo my surgeries, get through chemo, tolerate radiation — and be done with the millions of doctor appointments. Fertility was mentioned to me briefly when I was first diagnosed. Rightfully so, it didn’t seem like my surgical oncologist’s main concern. It was not until I met with my medical oncologist to discuss chemotherapy that fertility became a serious topic of discussion. Before I knew it, I was at a fertility center getting bloodwork and an ultrasound of my ovaries done to ensure my body was able to undergo the process of IVF. I had no idea what was happening. Nothing felt real and I felt like a rag doll being told where to go and what tests I needed done.

Chemotherapy was waiting on my fertility decision, and we had four days to decide what we were going to do and to come up with the first $12,000. Four. Days. I was ready to say I did not care about my ability to have children later in life. I did not want to do the daily injections and I just wanted to start my recovery. My partner and I were constantly told how important it was to freeze eggs or embryos and that it would be a safety net should I not be able to reproduce naturally after treatments. Deep down, we knew that everyone was right but being called every single day, multiple times a day to find out if we’ve made a decision yet, didn’t relieve any pressure off our shoulders. Honestly, this was one of the hardest decisions of our life together.

By this point, I felt like the world was against me. How many difficult things would I have to go through in such a short amount of time? This was definitely a “life isn’t always fair” moment and I suddenly could feel how tired by body was. Everything that had happened so far had taken a physical toll on me. I noticed how fatigued I was all the time and noticed that my weight was dropping.

Photo of Helen before her diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the financial aspect was what was holding us back. Even though I was a medical case, freezing embryos is majorly expensive. Not to mention, I wanted to ensure I had enough savings for anything I might need during treatments that insurance would not cover. Doctors and nurses can empathize with you and your difficult choices, but empathy isn’t what I wanted. I wanted a solution to the financial concern, and it was all too much pressure.

Luckily, I have amazing friends that created a GoFundMe page and my fertility center team really pulled through for me. They informed me of and assisted me with sending in my applications to the organizations Livestrong (medication support) and Chick Mission (cycle funding support) as well as provided me with any medication samples that they had on hand.

Now that the finances were figured out, I knew I had to mentally prepare myself for this cycle. If you’re like me and you cannot even watch your blood being drawn, the daily injections suck. There are three injections I needed to take daily (one that we even had to mix the solution ourselves!). The injections could have been done in my tummy or my thigh, and because there are so many in the 10-14 day period, I was sore at the injection sites and had bruises. I also had to see my fertility doctor frequently during this time for bloodwork and ultrasounds so they could monitor my progress. And that’s all on top of the side effects, like bloating, and not being able to move around much because you could potentially cause ovarian torsion (twisting). Toward the end of the estimated two-week period, I had to go in every day so they could make the call on when to do the “trigger” injections… Yes, more shots.

On the day of the egg retrieval, I was put under anesthesia and the procedure took about 15 minutes. A full recovery can take up to one week and you can have cramping, bleeding and abdominal pain. The abdominal pain was what really got to me. I could not even stand up straight for a few days afterward. But, I have friends that have undergone this procedure and some have commented on the heavy bleeding and others have commented on the bad cramping. All our bodies are different and will react in different ways. If you find yourself in this situation, just be aware that you do have a recovery period after this retrieval and take the time to relax and allow your body to heal.

Let’s fast forward to about two weeks later, it was the day before I was scheduled for my first chemotherapy infusion. We received a call that unfortunately, the embryos created from my retrieval were not genetically viable pregnancies. Again, we had a quick decision to make about doing a second IVF cycle… We had one day. Because of the crowd funding, my partner and I were able to make the decision to try once more without the financial stress. (You pay for the cycle, medications, anesthesia, etc. all over again.) I decided that I would undergo one more cycle before I had to start chemo. I cannot push my chemo date again so I told myself that I did as many cycles as I could before treatments and if it did not work out, then it was meant to be that way. Don’t get me wrong; I instantly broke down receiving the news and I was angry that I couldn’t have just one thing in this whole journey go my way. Side note: I had my first surgery thinking I was done and then received the bad news about a second surgery.

Photo of Helen during her second lumpectomy.

Fertility is a major life topic that you shouldn’t feel rushed to make a decision on. Remember that this is your life and you make the decisions for your cancer journey. Do not let anyone make you feel pressured to make quick decisions. Yes, your team of doctors are experts, but the decisions you make now will only affect your life and the lives of your family. If you need more time to read the informational pamphlets, take it. If you need to talk to family or friends that have experienced egg or embryo preservation, do so. You should feel equipped with all the information you need to make your family choices.

Breast cancer is not an easy experience. It is one we do not choose, but we deserve to be prepared to deal with anything and everything. My fertility experience was stressful, terrifying, overwhelming, emotional and made me feel like I aged ten years. For me, it was daunting because it happened so quickly. In a flash, I made a very important future decision. Even though this process was probably the hardest part of my cancer journey thus far, I am still happy with my decision to undergo IVF cycles. As a couple, my partner and I still are not 100% sold on having kids. But, I am happy with my decision because I realized it was losing the ability to have kids in the future that scared me. I want the option. I want the choice when it comes time. I think I am still coping and processing everything that has happened this year. It’s hard to think of yourself as a cancer patient. It’s difficult to be self-aware of it. You always think you’re invincible until you’re not. If it was not for my amazing support system of my partner, friends, family, co-workers, my cancer mentor and even online groups, I don’t think I would be able to handle what this journey has brought me. From silly texts to care packages to starting a GoFundMe, my support system is strong for me when I cannot be. What fuels me every single day is the reminder that if I can handle the many aspects of breast cancer (yes, I still cry, stress-eat junk food and lean on my support system), I can handle anything. — Helen Marcotte

Read more from those navigating fertility here!

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