“Breast cancer helped me find my son. So, how can I be anything but grateful to that lump?”
I remember the social worker coming to our home for our first home study visit in the summer of 2009. I baked cookies, brewed ice tea, made a plate of fruit and crackers, and cleaned the entire house. Throughout the first 15 minutes or so, I sat quietly while my husband spoke. When our social worker, Diane, finally turned to talk to me, I started to cry.
I told her I was terrified that she would not approve us for an adoption because I had a history of breast cancer. She smiled warmly and said, “My mother is also a breast cancer survivor. If I were to deny you from having a baby because of that, I would be denying my mother. I promise you that cancer will not keep you from having a baby.” I cried even more with relief, then relaxed and began chatting away. We were matched with our birthmother eight months later and our beautiful baby boy, Eli, was born in May of 2010.
I found a lump in my breast in August of 2005, 10 weeks after my wedding. I instantly went into action mode and saw my internist who then referred me for an ultrasound and mammogram to “calm my nerves” thinking that the tests would prove that I was fine. There was no history of breast cancer in my family.
Unfortunately, my instincts were right and I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma on August 19, 2005. A bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and a planned five years of tamoxifen quickly followed. My husband, my family, and my friends became my army and we handled each appointment, treatment, and milestone with laughter and closeness. We had a head shaving party, celebrations after each chemo, and photo shoots to capture each strand of hair coming back.
As my hair grew back, I watched my friends’ stomachs grow with their first babies. I was unable to try for pregnancy for five years because of Tamoxifen. We met with a fertility specialist after I had been cancer free for two years to discuss a possible pregnancy after my medication was complete. He did various tests and concluded that my ovaries appeared damaged by chemotherapy and a pregnancy would most likely be difficult once I completed Tamoxifen. I was devastated.
Like all moments in my experience with cancer, my husband and I took deep breaths and went into action mode. We explored the possibility of an egg donor and surrogate, but quickly became overwhelmed by the legality of it all. And then one day my husband simply said, “Let’s adopt a baby.” And it just made absolute sense. We contacted Adoptions Together in Virginia and began filling out what was to be lots and lots of paperwork for our home study.
I joined the Yahoo group “Adoption After Cancer” where I read numerous stories of individuals adopting babies despite having a history of cancer. My oncologist fully supported our decision and wrote a letter stating that I was healthy and fully capable of being a mother. Once our home study was complete, we chose Adoption Advocates in Texas to do our adoption placement and we began our wait for a birthmother to pick us.
I was anxious throughout most of the waiting and constantly apologized to my husband that we had to wait for a baby due to my breast cancer. As if it was my fault. He reassured me and reminded me that we were a team and we would get through it.
During this time, I turned to running as a way to deal with my anxieties. Through running, I found ways to let go of my worries about becoming a mother by focusing on my endurance. Running helped me find strength in my body, to heal and feel safe after it betrayed me with cancer. It helped me feel fuel when I was used to feeling so empty without a pregnancy and without a baby.
I had grieved and given up on the day my husband and I could celebrate the beginning of parenthood with a positive pregnancy test. In February of 2010, we received the call that a birth mother had picked us. And my husband and I screamed and yelled and cried and hugged just like I had imagined in my pre-cancer life when a pregnancy seemed a given. Adoption still gives you that moment….not with a pregnancy test, but with a phone call. We were going to become parents.
My celebration stopped and my true anxiety kicked in when I realized I would need to disclose my history of breast cancer with our intended birth mother. Our adoption was to be an open adoption and just like we had full disclosure of our birthmother’s medical history, I would have to do the same.
I remember the first phone call with our birthmother. I waited until what seemed like a pause and then quickly stated in one breath, “I just want to let you know that I have a history of breast cancer. I’m fine now, and it’s been almost five years and I’m healthy, but I wanted you to know and I promise I’m healthy as anyone else.” She listened and then simply said, “You’re OK now? OK. Sounds good,” and she moved on to the next question. Again, I let go of my anxiety as I realized that cancer was still not stopping me from motherhood.
My beautiful boy, Eli, was born in May of 2010. My husband and I sat in the corner of the delivery room and listened to him being born and we got to hold him immediately after. It was the most intimate moment in my life.
A week after his birth, my husband and I celebrate our 5-year wedding anniversary and we celebrated my 5-year mark of being a breast cancer survivor. My husband gave me an eternity band that was engraved with the words, “Five in, Five out” to signify our years of marriage and surviving cancer.
It was no longer about cancer. I had a newborn. I had sleepless nights and worries about feeding and sleep training like any other new mom. My diagnosis suddenly became a blip of who I was, not something I had to excuse or defend.
I completed Tamoxifen in 2011 and was given permission to try for a pregnancy when Eli was two-years-old. My son, Austin, was born in September of 2012. It turns out the fertility specialist was wrong and my ovaries were just fine. We named him Austin as a nod to our adoption agency’s location…the city that led us to Eli and to becoming a family.
When Eli was three-years-old, he asked me if he grew in my tummy like Austin did. And I took a deep breath and said, “No, sweetie. Mommy’s tummy was broken, so another lady grew you in her tummy in Texas. Mommy and Daddy flew so fast on an airplane to come meet you and bring you home. And you are so important and special because you made me a mommy. I was just Amy before I met you, and you made me Mommy, which is my favorite name in the whole world. And then the doctor fixed my tummy, so I could grow Austin and now you have a brother and we are a family of four.” He had a lot of questions about the airplane.
One day I will have to tell my boys that I have a history of breast cancer. It makes me nervous and somewhat sad because I don’t want him to be scared that something so big happened to their mommy.
I am grateful for cancer. It is a weird sentence to write, but it truly is a statement I hold to every day. If I had not found that lump in August of 2005, I would not have found my road to adoption. Eli would have still existed, but he would not have been my son. Even thinking that he could live in a world and not be with me brings me to tears. Breast cancer helped me find my son. So, how can I be anything but grateful to that lump?
When Eli was four, his fish died and we had talks about animals dying. He asked me if I would die, and I took a deep breath and said, “I take care of myself and try to be healthy so I can live a long time. When my hair is white and I’m wrinkly and creaky, we can talk about me dying. But, for now I’m your mommy and I am OK.”
I try to ignore the voice that most likely every cancer survivor has that says, “What if you’re not OK?” But then I quickly tell myself that I am not going to let fears of a recurrence take me away from being present for my children. I can’t let the fear of cancer be powerful in my world. I’m too busy being a mom.
I will be a 10-year-cancer survivor in August of 2015. I don’t allow cancer to make me scared of leaving my children early. It’s not the life I want to live. I find a way to make peace with that fear…that in reality any parent worries that he or she will leave his or her children too early. I think about the journey I took to become a mother and again thank breast cancer for leading me to adoption. In a crazy way, that diagnosis gave me my family.