Grieving The Loss Of Breastfeeding Because Of Cancer
There is one area of my breast cancer journey that I do not like to talk about or visit in my mind. Mostly because it was so traumatic as a mother. I am, of course, referring to the two to four weeks after I was diagnosed when I had to wean Andrew from being exclusively breastfed.
I would always joke that God let my boys be so good at nursing as an apology for both of my pregnancies. If I am being totally transparent, I was really proud of how natural it was for me. Anyone who has ever nursed or attempted to nurse their baby also knows how emotional and bonding it is for mother and child. I nursed Alan until he was 18 months old and I loved every minute of it. I planned on nursing Andrew until he was at least a year old.
The day before I went in for my biopsy, I called to cancel it and then hung up. You see, there was a small risk (greater than the risk of cancer at this point), that they would puncture some of my milk ducts and render me unable to continue nursing Andrew. That thought scared me out of my mind. But I just felt this pull in the base of my stomach not to cancel and I didn’t. One of the first things that the oncologist told me was that I was going to have to stop nursing Andrew. First because there were so many tests they needed to do that would render my milk radioactive (I know), but also because I would be getting surgery within the next 6 to 8 weeks and they needed my milk to be as dried up as possible so they could actually perform the surgery. Andrew had just turned three months old. It was like a punch in a face that was already beaten beyond recognition.
After trying to pump my milk and bottle feed it to him to get him used to a bottle and it not working, me snatching him out of my family’s arms to nurse him after a few hours, crying my eyes out, and a stern talking to from my mom, we came up with a plan. I had to quit nursing him cold turkey.
He refused my milk from a bottle because it smelled like me and he wanted me, so we found a mother who was nursing and had enough of a supply saved that she could (and would) provide the donor milk necessary to get Andrew used to a bottle and then transitioned over to formula.
She offered to just keep pumping and donating until he was older but I selfishly couldn’t do it. I only had the emotional strength to let him receive donor milk as long as it took for him to transition to formula. I met with his pediatrician and a lactation expert and they agreed that it would be a safe thing for him to do.
When I nursed Andrew for the last time I cried. I cried because it was the first thing that cancer cost me. It was the first time that cancer touched my real life. Up until that point, cancer was doctors visits and exam gowns. It was fasting and big medical machines. It was real, but it was separate. It was hypothetical surgery dates and results on pieces of paper. This was the first time it was real. It was the first thing cancer took from me.
Fast forward almost 24 hours and Andrew was refusing the bottle. We were at a church event where I had to get up and do a sign language interpretation in front of at least 150 people with the team that I led at the time. It had been months of planning, practicing and rehearsing. I was one of the leads and I wanted to keep this one thing normal. Do this one thing. But all I could think about, all I could hear during the performance was Andrew crying that special cry. The cry for his mother. The cry that every cell in my body was aching to answer, but I couldn’t. I don’t think anyone else could hear him, it was probably in my head, but seared into my brain forever is the feeling of being on that stage and thinking I could hear Andrew screaming for me. Feeling like I was failing him.
By that point as well I was in physical pain as my body was producing milk, enough for a feeding every three hours, but it was not being released. Up there on that stage it was physically painful to sign those signs and made a million times worse by the fact that in the back of that church I could see the door where I knew my mom, dad and Josiah were desperately trying to get my 3-month-old to take even an ounce of milk. I thought I was going to get off the stage and we were going to have to take him to the emergency room so he wouldn’t get dehydrated.
He finally took a bottle, and by the time the surgery came I could feed him formula and he would take it from me and I wasn’t in excruciating pain from weaning him so quickly anymore. When we got a copy of the pathology report it said in very scientific terms that I was still lactating at the time of surgery. I can almost see it in my mind. Being in the surgical theater, the doctors cutting into me, and still my body doing the one thing it never failed me in, making milk to take care of my babies.
I have struggled with so much guilt and fears because I had to wean Andrew. He is smaller than his brother was, is it because I wasn’t able to nurse him and give him the nutrients specifically designed for his body? Do I have the same special bond with him I had with Alan because I wasn’t able to nurse him? Will he be at a deficit in some unforeseen way in the future?
Every time I had to ask for an outlet at a restaurant for his bottle warmer I worried that I was being judged. Every time another mother was nursing their baby and I had to pull out his bottle I wondered if they were judging me. I worried that I was seen as less than. That somehow my abilities as a mother were diminished because I was no longer able to do the one thing that mothers are supposed to be able to do naturally.
I had a lady make a comment to me once at a picnic for my husband’s job about how SHE didn’t need an outlet to make her baby accept his milk because her body warmed it to the perfect temperature. It crushed me. I was about two treatments into my AC chemo, had actually just had one a few days before and had pushed past every nauseous feeling and drove an hour in the car to be there and support my husband and feel like a normal family. I didn’t cry, but I felt like I had died a little inside. I quietly explained that I couldn’t, I had wanted to and had nursed him as long as I could. You could tell she felt awful, but the damage that that flippant comment did to me during that time was enormous.
I still mourn what I lost with Andrew. Mostly because I know what I am missing. I had it with Alan. I miss it. I miss that special time in the middle of the night when you are exhausted and feel like you can’t go on, but you drag yourself out of bed because they need YOU. They need something only you can give them. That magical moment when you are holding a sleepy baby and they snuggle in just a little more, their little hand finds your face or neck and it is just you and them. I am teary just writing this. This isn’t something that I expect anyone to fully grasp, it may seem trivial to some, silly to others, but it was big for me. Like I said before, cancer has taken a lot of things from me, but I hate this one more than I hate a lot of the others because this is one thing cancer made me take from my baby, and as a mother, that is unbearable.
I took this one thing away from Andrew so that way he has the opportunity to know who I am. In the flesh and not through pictures. I did this so I can hug him and hold him. So I can walk in as Mother of the Groom on his wedding day. So he can have me when he is sad. So I can teach him about Jesus. It is a sacrifice and part of the price I paid to be here in person and not an idea he has from someone else’s memory. I had no other option and I would do it over and over again for those reasons. But I do mourn what I lost. What he lost. And that’s okay.
For more stories about being a young mom with breast cancer, click here.
Taylor Frankford is a 24 year old breast cancer survivor and blogger. She is married to the love of her life, Josiah Frankford and mommy to two little boys, Alan (3) and Andrew (1). She loves dancing for exercise, sun-catchers, Target, playing the piano and dark chocolate. Taylor wants to spend the second chance at life she has been given as an encouragement to her pink sisters, a voice for earlier testing in young women and a testament of the love and the goodness of God.