Things get a little complicated when you’re a young adult that has been through cancer treatment and are ready to grow your family. The questions and racing thoughts are bountiful, and fear rears its ferocious little head far more often than preferred. It’s been a weird, frightful, and somewhat cynical place for me over the last 4+ years. Once you realize that mortality is a real thing and you face some of the implications of what that means for your life, you start reevaluating, well, close to everything.
One of the first questions we asked Dr. Spencer in our radiation consultation appointment was whether or not anything that I had already undergone or would undergo with treatment would affect our ability to have children someday. At that point, our vision for our future was still relatively clear. We were married, knew we wanted a family someday, and we hoped that this surprise cancer situation would just be a blip on the radar. And it was. But at some point our vision blurred and fear bled into our thoughts.
“What if” basically became part of my identity during that first year post-treatment. We had been instructed to wait about a year after treatment before trying to grow our family (Growing a tumor apparently doesn’t count as family. And yes, I know my humor is a little off still) so knowing that the potential to have children was getting closer, many of our discussions centered around what that might look like.
As so many couples probably do, we started out pretty excited thinking every month was THE month that we would see those beloved two pink lines. We absolutely clung to hope in every way. Every weird feeling, every rainbow, and every prayer…it all brought immense joy and assurance that the Lord was working to fulfill His promises. And He was.
Yet 54 months later, and we are still waiting on that month and those lines. No false alarms. No miscarriages. No additional diagnoses. No babies. No sign of anything. Nothing.
At the 2ish year mark (June 2020) we decided to finally go to an infertility clinic. We underwent a full lab workups, various samples, questions, life history, tests, genetic tests, and a gazillion appointments. Yet at the end of it all, there is absolutely nothing identifiably wrong with either one of us. In fact, everything came back nearly perfect, clinically speaking.
There have been SO many days and moments over the last 5 years where I have pleaded for the Lord to answer the loud and resounding WHYYYs that have plagued me all too often. Haven’t we struggled enough already? Mom’s cancer, my cancer, the mental healing and emotional work that was necessary to do after the trauma that ensued, and now infertility?! There are many days and moments where I’m just mad and frustrated. Can’t something work in my body how it’s supposed to? How many things are going to leave me feeling broken and inadequate before there’s nothing left? Why did the Lord put being a mama on my heart if it wasn’t going to happen? If it is going to happen, why not wait until our blessing is closer to give us the desire? Why do I keep seeing visions of me holding my baby in this house and baby toys strewn across the floor? How many more people are going to tell us what wonderful parent’s we’ll be if we’re not meant to be parents at all. It’s all so disillusioning at times.
But glory. And purpose. There is always both. And it’s always good.
As I’ve also spent time in reflection over the last 5 years, the Lord’s hand and provision has been glaringly evident, which I know opposes what I described feeling above. It is, but both can and do exist simultaneously. Everywhere we look opportunity has been abundant. We have not once lacked something we needed, even when we felt like what we were given wasn’t what we thought we needed at the time. Support has been plentiful, yet so has abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness. Prayers have been offered up continually and encouragement has come from places we didn’t expect. And at times, well-meaning questions and comments were painful to respond to or hurt our feelings in reflection. But knowing and acknowledging that God’s hand is in our story doesn’t mean our feelings always reflect that acknowledgement or that situations haven’t totally sucked at times too.
In many moments, we’ve felt the depths of exhaustion and defeat. We’ve felt the frustration over how many things from cancer still affect my life from time to time, the survivor’s guilt when I am humbly reminded that my cancer journey was relatively easy compared to what some go through. Embarrassment from how the healing process hemorrhaged onto other aspects of life like friendships and relationships and how out of control that felt. Disillusionment about how life was “supposed to go” and simply…didn’t. And how many moments I spent wrapped up and paralyzed from fear, worry, and anxiety. Yet part of all that is why I’m finding myself here…on my cancer blog…almost 5 years out…talking about infertility.
Because the impact doesn’t end after surgery or after treatment. There is no separation between traumas and there is no box to package things up in, tie a bow on, and ship off to another planet (although that would be nice). We just have to choose to focus on that glory and that purpose that the suffering reveals over time. And most of all, find peace in that.
So, with each nagging question, I’m faced with a choice. Am I going to let the fear and experience circulate my thoughts and overwhelm me to the point of anxious inability to see beyond the past, or will I choose trust the perspective and faith in the God that has never once led me in the wrong direction?
1) What if it comes back?
I had cancer at 28. Generally speaking, cancer is a disease of age. If you live long enough, there is a decent chance you may be diagnosed with some sort of cancer. At an older age, you’ve lived most of your life so there is presumably less life to live or mourn the possible loss of. But yet at 28, you look at what you think is the rest of your life and realize that that very well may be cut short because you hit the cancer milestone wayyyy ahead of everyone else, and you have way more time for something to come back. This is one of the oddest realities I’ve processed yet and I’ve finally (just in in year 5) have realized that I am more at risk driving a car these days than I am for my previous cancer to take me out. Death can happen at any time, and fighting for control over that or being terrified of the outcomes of that is utterly unproductive.
2) What if I die “early” and leave my family here without me?
There are many moments that I have imagined my family surrounding my casket at my funeral and my kids having to figure out life without Mom. Or my husband crawling in bed at night…alone…knowing he will never hold me or talk to me again. Or the questions our little ones might ask in trying to understand death and disease that brings up the reality of things yet again for my husband who is also trying to understand. And it makes me absolutely sob, and it’s made me question many, many times if bringing a child into this world is worth the potential of all that.
These are incredibly morbid and hard thoughts. I know that, and I’m not attempting to cover that up. But this is what I mean (and have always meant) when I say that facing your mortality at a young age is rough. It’s really freaking hard and scary. But it’s also beautifully eye-opening to the value that humans and relationship have in life.
I want none of these things to come true. I want to snuggle my husband and my babies until I’m too old to know who or what I’m snuggling, but finding peace with the plan the Lord has for my life is the only option here. And that is also really freaking hard sometimes.
3) What if I haven’t gotten pregnant already because something else is coming for me?
My head and neck is monitored pretty closely. Since October of 2017, I have had scans at least every 6 months, if not every 3-4 months. Ain’t nothing in there getting past anyone!…But the rest of me could be totally up for debate. Thank God, for all the vaginal ultrasounds, saline ultrasounds, HSGs, and whatever else to confirm that my lady bits are also safe or I might still be thinking THAT’s why nothing is sticking! (please acknowledge my humor here too). For real though, after initially figuring out your body is capable of producing cancer cells, it’s really, really hard not to wonder when that process might unknowingly start taking place again like it did before, and what if it’s too late next time. (Thankfully, I had a PET scan at the end of June so peace has been restored here for a while)
All of these questions have led to really intimately exposing conversations between K.T. and me. We’ve cried together on many long drives where these things come up. We’ve shared perspective with one another, which thankfully tends to be drastically different than the other. We’ve discussed options and alternatives at uncomfortable depths in order to process thoughts and emotions in a “healthy” manner. And we’ve played out scenarios and what ifs to make decisions for our family. It’s an added layer to things that I would assume most couples trying to grow their families don’t experience, but here we are.
These conversations have cemented us together like nothing else. When you marry in the Christian faith, you become one flesh, and we’ve pretty much nailed that one. We’re one big ole pile of Powell flesh after all we’ve been through. Those conversations have led us to scripture and the promises of God almost every time. They have reminded us of hope and faithfulness we’ve seen thus far, and the purpose. My goodness, the purpose. They have stripped away insecurities and left us vulnerable and they’ve built back trust in a way that I didn’t expect.
At the beginning of this year, K.T. and I felt led to finally embark on the adventure of IVF. We had always felt like it wasn’t for us, but after 4.5 IUIs (Intrauterine insemination) in 2020-2021 and a decent break from infertility things, we felt the nudge to begin again.
January 11 was our first appointment with our clinic. Jan 26 we did our first set of lab work. February 9 was our first call with the genetic counsellor that would eventually be testing our embryos. We were pretty psyched. This timing put us on schedule for an end of May genetic probe completion, June egg retrieval, and an August/September transfer, which puts you at a status of PUPO or pregnant until proven otherwise.
Middle of May, K.T. came to me nervously and told me he had been thinking about our IVF plans. He felt like the Lord had laid it on his heart to dig deeper into things. I thought we were already pretty deep in things, but once we sat down and talked I quickly realized he meant something different. He wanted us to take a deeper dive into what scripture says about infertility. Now, we know that IVF isn’t in the bible (duh, hello 21st century technology) but the bible is actually pretty vocal about all things procreation.
K.T.’s a spreadsheet, practical, research person, and I’m, well, not, so he did his thing while I made a list of scriptures related to fertility to go hunt down and study. We looked for resources that might help us understand better and found ourselves buried in devotionals and sermons. We prayed for clarity and understanding and asked for the Lord to reveal answers that our hearts had been looking for and that He did.
Our first venture for the weekend was Secret Church. For most of the pandemic, we attended church online with David Platt at McClean Bible Church in DC. Secret Church is something David did when he was the Pastor here in Birmingham at Church at Brook Hills and the whole idea behind it is to study and pray like those in countries where the gospel isn’t allowed and Christians have to meet secretly for long hours to study the one bible they might have. K.T. made sure we had the materials we needed (like study guides and snacks) and scheduled 2hr sessions for us throughout the weekend (6 total hrs of teaching). Yes, it’s a lot and you better be paying attention or you’ll miss something valuable.
Also in the midst of all of this, K.T. was flipping through a men’s devotional he was given at Christmas and for whatever reason, hadn’t picked up in a while. He started was going day-by-day from January 1 looking for days that matched up with the list of scriptures I had made.
The first one that matched was January 11. The next one was February 9. The first IVF appointment and the first genetic counselling appointment. Not only did those match up with our initial appointments, but February 9th is the 40th day of the year, which also holds significance biblically.
Alright, Lord, we see you…loud and clear.
After a tough weekend, we knew. IVF wasn’t our journey anymore, and honestly I’m not sure it was ever supposed to be our journey looking back. So, we stopped. We called our doctors, cancelled our plans, and paid our bills we had stacked up. And we’ve (almost) never looked back.
A lot happened that weekend emotionally. Our decision wasn’t based on health. It didn’t come from fear or worry. It didn’t come from anyone else’s outside influence. It came from our faith in God and what we believe His Word says about life and the means of which life comes to be, specifically when labs and tests have shown no reason for us to be pursuing medical treatment. The reason for us starting IVF in the first place had very clearly become lack of patience and faith rather than treatment of a problem.
But it was more than that too. It was the possibility of having to grieve a life that we thought was ahead of us and one that we had begun to envision even more clearly…being parents. We had to understand that our decision could ultimately mean that we never have a child of our own. But it could also just mean that we could still have a child of our own naturally and it just wasn’t our time yet. Two drastically different outcomes to process and be ok with at the same time. Woof.
The weekend was heavy but nearly 4 months since that decision, the peace within us has sustained. We’ve talked many times about that weekend and everything that went into it and celebrated God’s goodness for it rather than wishing we had continued on.
While things have still been quite hard, as friends and family continue to get pregnant with free-sex babies (that’s what us infertility folks call those babies that happen without treatment 🙂 ) we’ve settled in to using our abundance of kid-free time for others in our lives. Have I thought about getting pregnant and whether this is the month or not? Have I wondered why? Have I watched the time ticking by and wondered if it will ever be our time? Have I bowed my head bummed out after seeing yet another pregnancy announcement? A million times over. Almost every single day. But I’m learning, and I’m growing slowly.
There’s purpose and there’s glory in it all. And that makes the wait worth it while we continue to pray for Baby Powell.
Someday. Maybe. Onward and upward.