When the consultant told me the bloated tummy, back pain and exhaustion I’d been experiencing was down to cancer in my ovaries, I didn’t think about my fertility. I heard the word ‘chemo’ and thought simply of my hair. Would it all fall out? Going bald was a more immediate, digestible fear than the enormity of never having my own child. And anyway, the key thing at this point – the consultant reiterated – was to survive the treatment.
I was 27 and my ovaries were riddled with cancer, so harvesting eggs to freeze pre-chemo was out of the question. There was no time; I had the most aggressive female cancer there is. So by the end of the 30-minute meeting, the decision was made. My first cycle of chemotherapy started three days later and, as I felt the cool, poisonous liquid travel into my veins, I went into survival mode, thinking only of endurance.
I had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation in 2015, so I knew I was high risk for breast and ovarian cancer, but the latter tends to affect women over 45, so the focus had always been on my breasts, with regular six-monthly checks. And yet here I was, being told my hysterectomy was going to include removing my cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, womb, two-thirds of my diaphragm, most of my peritoneum (the lining that covers the organs inside your abdomen) as well as some cancerous bits sitting on my liver and bowel. If the chemotherapy hadn’t already wiped out my fertility, this operation certainly would.
At the time, I was teaching at a primary school in North London and, like most single 20-somethings, having children wasn’t on my radar. But now I was suddenly forced to think about it, simply because the choice was being taken away. I was never going to know what it was like to be pregnant and that was devastating.
But upmost in my mind was simply wanting to live. My family and friends were amazing, allowing me to talk about my fears and loss, but their biggest kindness to me was treating me just the same; never avoiding talking about pregnancy or babies.
Over time, I accepted I didn’t need to give birth to be a mother. I started watching adoption videos, seeing babies being lifted into tearful couples’ arms or a grin splitting a child’s face while enclosed in a hug by new parents. It gave me hope, knowing families could be constructed in all sorts of ways provided there was one ingredient: love.
After the operation, I was plunged into the menopause. I couldn’t sleep, alternating between sweating under the covers then shivering without them. I’d compare symptoms with other menopausal female relations in their fifties, joking how I was a young person trapped in an old woman’s body. But beneath the laughter, I struggled. Some days I was too exhausted to move from bed and my bones and joints ached so much they couldn’t bear my weight. I had to keep reminding myself my body was in this state for a reason: it had saved my life.
When I was well enough, I had another three cycles of chemotherapy to make sure every trace of ‘Cyril’ (my name for my cancer) was obliterated. Then in November 2016 I heard that magic word: remission.
I wrote about it on my blog and a guy called Alex messaged me, asking if I wanted to meet. We had friends in common and I knew he’d been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his early twenties, so when we met for a coffee we didn’t stop chatting. I was still having maintenance chemotherapy treatment and he’d come with me, keeping me calm, knowing how it felt. That was the thing about Alex. He was six years cancer-free but he totally got it: the worrying about every twinge for fear the cancer had returned; the sadness at losing your fertility – chemotherapy had made him sterile at 22. We had so much in common – not just cancer, but also our love of food, theatre and swimming. We fell in love and, after 18 months, he asked me to marry him. It was a no-brainer. We talked about our dreams of having a family with ease. Adoption was always something Alex had wanted to do, so the idea that we could pursue it together became an exciting focus.
I’m two years in remission now and there is a preventative double mastectomy on the cards – to get rid of the breasts that might one day kill me – but we’re talking seriously about adoption. We might have lost our fertility to cancer but we’re hoping to gain something incredible one day very soon.
Read Laura’s blog at findingcyril.com