It's been nearly twenty years since my first cancer diagnosis: Stage II colon cancer. Diagnosed when I was an athletic, slim, non-smoking vegetarian who was, according to my doctor, "way too young to have cancer"
And, that diagnosis was followed by two more – skin cancer and breast cancer. All hereditary, all striking at an early age
. I was concerned with nothing else but working hard at my career as an attorney, spending time with my family and friends, marrying my soulmate, and having children of my own in a happy, productive life.
Of course, all that changed when the first biopsy proved positive and I began traveling the rocky road of cancer diagnoses, surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation, drugs, bloodwork, alternative treatments, side effects and intermittent recoveries. This is my "cancer experience" – something in which I have spent much of my adult life.
Yet, I've survived. I'm still here
. And, I'm so grateful to share my experience with you – with those traveling the same rocky road. Because, you are my confidants. My fellow warriors.
So, I ask you all – why do you think it is that every time I meet someone new, after asking my name, the next question they always ask is, "do you have any children?"
. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get it. On the one hand I think, "What does it matter?"
and on the other hand I think, "What business is it of yours?"
I'm of two minds. Do I answer truthfully and say, "No"
and go into a long explanation of how cancer, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery all plunged me into "surgical and chemical menopause"
and as a result I can never have children of my own? Or do I simply say, "No, I don’t"
while shaking my head and smiling politely?
For the truth is, after all these years – being asked that question still irks me. It hurts. It makes me uncomfortable and exposes old wounds that, perhaps, may never really heal. Like so many of you I have lost my ability to, how shall we say, "procreate," due to cancer.
With my first cancer diagnosis, the spectre of sterility wasn’t really discussed that much. One was diagnosed with cancer, surgery was scheduled, and chemotherapy and radiation were implemented. Today, we know much more about cancer and the ways it affects our reproductive options. Of course, the disease itself can render us sterile – as in the case of ovarian or testicular cancer.
We also know the dangers of cancer treatments. Certain drugs in our chemo-cocktail can result in infertility. For women, our ability to ovulate or conceive can be greatly impaired by certain anticancer drugs. And even if we make it through treatment with our reproductive options and organs intact, certain anticancer drugs like cyclophosphamide increase our risk for future failed pregnancies and fetal malformations.
Of course, while radiation kills cancer cells it also kills healthy cells
. True, the new "targeted therapies" strive to destroy tumors while preserving healthy tissue. But, these smart techniques are not perfected – and radiation to certain parts of the body such as the abdomen – can still result in damage to the reproductive organs of both women and men.
Knowing this, men can choose to save and freeze their sperm for future in-vitro fertilization or IVF. Similarly, women can undergo a transvaginal aspiration – or TV collection – whereby her eggs are retrieved, frozen and also saved for a future IVF procedure. But, for women this can be a lengthy, expensive process requiring shots, drugs and impeccable timing – timing, of course, being the crucial element when facing a cancer diagnosis
. And for me, the process failed because my surgery had already resulted in "ovarian failure" and "surgical menopause."
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. As individuals, we must discuss this highly personal issue thoroughly with our physician and loved ones BEFORE we begin ANY CANCER TREATMENT. As a group, perhaps we can help by teaching others through example. In other words, the next time we meet a new person – forget kids – let's just ask if they have a dog.
What are your thoughts?