There are many so surprises that come after a cancer diagnosis. Lots of things change, lots of things you sacrifice, but something I never considered giving up was my fertility and the option of growing our family (something we've always planned on). Included in the immense of amount of information that gets thrown at you are options for fertility preservation. So, in addition to grappling with my diagnosis, I also had to grapple with the fact that I might never be able to have another child. It was a sobering thought and still something I can't quite comprehend. We knew without hesitation that fertility preservation was important to us and something we wanted to explore.
Because chemo attacks living cells, it doesn't discriminate between healthy ones and cancerous ones. So the ovaries and healthy eggs suffer extreme, sometimes irreparable damage. IVF provides an alternative for women who are no longer able to produce eggs after finishing treatment, but still want to have children. Additionally, because your body needs time to heal and recover after treatment, most oncologists suggest waiting to try and get pregnant. I’ve heard differing viewpoints on exact timing (some say 1 year, some say 5 years), but IVF ensures your eggs are stored when they are youngest and most viable.
As someone who had an easy time getting pregnant, I never considered I might need IVF. I've seen so many friends endure the trials and tribulations of IVF, not to mention the staggering costs, and I always felt so grateful we had somehow been lucky enough to avoid it all. Never say never, I guess!
We were scheduled to meet with our fertility doctor before meeting my oncologist, which at the time frustrated me. I wanted to meet with the person who would be treating my cancer immediately; I had so many questions and I needed answers NOW. Sure, fertility preservation was a part of the overall plan, but it didn't seem as urgent to me. It turns out I was wrong and our appointment was perfectly timed; it just so happened I was starting my period the day of our appointment. I could begin IVF injections that same evening.
After spending the entire day at the clinic, doing bloodwork, learning more about how my diagnosis could affect my fertility, the injection and retrieval process, our options for freezing (eggs vs. embryos), we went home with a giant bag of injections and stepped even deeper into this surreal, new world.
On Monday I learned I had breast cancer, and 24 hours later I was starting IVF.
That night we laid out all the many, many supplies and tried to make sense of the instructions. We were given a few demos at the clinics, plus links to videos online, but I still can't believe they send you home with this stuff. There's mixing and measuring and the stakes just feel so high. Needles don't bother me at all, but Spencer can't stand them, so I had planned on injecting myself, which requires more mental fortitude than you'd imagine. Luckily, my mom was in town and after the first self inflicted jab, I outsourced the job to her.The injections need to happen at the same time every 24 hours, so I chose the evening, after Charley had gone to sleep. We'd mix and measure the injections, I'd ice my stomach (a friend recommended this and it's a great tip in case anyone is a wimp like me!) and in they would go. One of the medications burned so much I could barely keep from crying when it went in. A friend suggested pre-mixing it and letting it sit for 10 minutes before injecting, which helped some, but in truth it was awful no matter what I tried.
The injections were a nightly ritual, followed by a morning visit back to the clinic to draw blood and see how things were progressing. Once they knew my levels, I'd get a call telling me if I needed to adjust the dosage. We carried on this way for about a week until they instructed me to inject the trigger shot. Essentially, the trigger shot helps the eggs mature just before your scheduled retrieval. Next, we scheduled my retrieval and hoped for the best.
If you’re going through this and feeling nervous about this part, don’t. The retrieval process was honestly the easiest bit of the entire process. I was put under for the procedure, which only lasted about 15 minutes, and woke up in a recovery room. I don’t remember anything after counting down from 10 and didn’t feel any pain, aside from some light cramping afterwards. I went home feeling a little woozy from the drugs and took a nap, happy to have it behind us and hopeful that the outcome would be good.
Overall, the entire process of IVF is invasive, uncomfortable and painful. My stomach was sore and mottled with pinpricks and bruises, not to mention the bloating you get from the hormones. Time-wise, it's an enormous commitment, between the nightly injections and the daily doctors visits. On top of it all, the stress that you're doing things right, that your body will cooperate, that it will all work. Even though it's all for a good cause, it's a rough road and I have a newfound respect for all the women I personally know who have endured it.
The truth is, we're lucky IVF was even an option for us financially. IVF, under any circumstances (meaning due to a cancer diagnosis or not), is not covered by our insurance. At all. Even with a "cancer discount program" offered through our clinic, the costs were outrageous and something we hadn't budgeted for. It breaks my heart that there might be someone in my position who couldn't afford IVF and has to put aside their dreams of having a family. There are lots of things about our healthcare system that need to change, but being able to have a family shouldn't be a privilege, especially if an unforeseen diagnosis changes what your body may or may not be capable of.
Ultimately, our hope is that this experience is an insurance policy, and nothing more. That when I'm through with treatment and my body starts to recover, things will begin to normalize. But just in case, I'm on a drug called Lupron that puts my body into a temporary menopausal state, essentially putting my ovaries and eggs in hibernation. The thinking is if they aren't actively producing anything, they can't be damaged by chemo. There's no guarantee it will work and Lupron comes with it's own host of fun side effects (hello, hot flashes), but I'm grateful it's available to me and crossing my fingers it does what it's designed to do.
We won't know what the outcome of any of this is for awhile; whether we're able to have another child naturally, or if we need to use our frozen eggs and whether any of those might lead to a viable pregnancy. We feel blessed to have a healthy, happy child and hope one day we might have another. For now, we're focusing on my happened, I was planning to be pregnant around now, but instead I'm halfway through an aggressive chemotherapy journey, with a long road ahead. Life has a funny way of surprising you.
So, that's my unexpected experience with IVF, which feels like a distant memory at this point. Somewhere, my eggs are cooling, waiting for whatever comes next and every day I'll be crossing my fingers and toes that when the dust settles, my body will recover and heal itself, and maybe one day, however long from now, I'll be waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby, instead of from medically induced hot flashes.