My Battle with Infertility
Unlike most young cancer patients, cancer didn’t cause my infertility. Infertility was a battle I had been fighting for years before my breast cancer diagnosis.
My husband and I got married in 2016 and about six months later started trying to have a baby. I remember feeling a mixture of trepidation and pure excitement at the possibility of becoming parents. But months turned into years. As we witnessed countless friends and family members easily getting pregnant and delivering healthy babies, we found ourselves engulfed in a slow burning monthly cycle of ovulation sticks, hope, the arrival of my period and defeat.
By the fall of 2020, I had suffered a devastating miscarriage, undergone six failed IUI’s, and one disappointing round of IVF.
One of the cruelest jokes of nature is having period and pregnancy symptoms be almost identical, however as a woman dealing with ongoing infertility you become extremely in tune with your body. In early October, while giving myself a breast exam in the shower I felt a hard lump in my left breast. I had been inconsistent with my breast exams and had no way of knowing how long the lump had been there. I had heard on an infertility podcast that breast lumps were common after IVF but I made an appointment with my gyno anyways. It was significant enough in size that I could not ignore it. There are so many horror stories of young women not being taken seriously by their doctors after finding a lump, but luckily my doctor acted quickly on my behalf. After a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, my worst fears came true with that phone call. I broke down at the reality that I may never get to have babies.
At age 35, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B, triple negative breast cancer. The plan was 16 rounds of neoadjuvant chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy and radiation. Because of my age and my history of infertility, I knew the questions to ask in regards to how cancer treatment will affect my ability to reproduce. Fortunately I had an incredible medical team who worked closely with my fertility clinic to arrange a round of IVF before I began chemo. Ironically this round fared better than my first and we were able to freeze three embryos. I am now getting monthly Zoladex shots to suppress my ovaries, and enduring the hell that is non-stop hot flashes.
The emotions that coincide with infertility and cancer can be all encompassing. As someone who has taken great pride in her work ethic, I quickly realized I can’t outwork infertility. I can’t try harder to shrink my tumor. I feel guilty, did I somehow bring this on myself? I’m scared. Of never having children, of my cancer treatments not working, or the cancer returning, spreading. There are no guarantees. There is a loneliness to navigating it all. Unless they’ve been through it, no one else could possibly understand the physical, mental and emotional toll cancer and infertility can take. And sometimes all of the well meaning comments and unsolicited advice are enough to make you want to scream.
I am still in the midst of my journey. I hope to be finished with chemo by early May, followed by surgery and radiation. We have four embryos waiting for us and we are open to alternative routes to parenthood, be it surrogacy or adoption. I don’t know how this part of my story will end so I do not have any shiny, positive gems of advice to give from the other side. But I will share what I’ve learned so far. Take notes, ask questions and advocate for yourself. Treatment and healing are not linear, try to be patient with yourself. My fertility doctor once told me “the key to success is persistence.” This has become a mantra of sorts that has translated to every part of my life, especially in those really difficult moments when there is no clear end in sight. I’ve learned that the best laid plans will get thrown off course. All you can do is take the hits as they come, pivot as needed and keep moving forward. – Monica Timko
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