Today’s story is from one of the most brilliant women I’ve met online – it’s been such a long time that I can’t remember how we found each other. Some of you will know Em and her candid account of having metastatic breast cancer. Here she shares how that has impacted her life from a childfree perspective. As always, I’m so grateful for everyone’s commitment because it is such a personal subject to open up about. Please do read, leave a comment and share as much as you can, I’m really willing this to grow and grow so that we can help as many people as possible who may be going through something similar.
I’ve also started to build a resource list, for those of you who are either childfree by circumstance or childfree by choice. A combination of blogs, communities, individuals who are doing wonderful things in this space. Please do let me know if there are resources you use I can add.
We Are : Emma and Jim, 39
Home Is: Yorkshire
I Do: Part-time digital marketing lead
In late August 2016, when I was 35, I got a call from my local fertility hospital booking me in for an appointment. Less than a month earlier I had been told I had a small cancerous lump in my right breast, 2 weeks earlier I had been in for an op to have the lump removed, to be analysed, to see what the next steps in my treatment would be.
The call from the fertility clinic signaled that I’d be having chemotherapy. Chemotherapy that could make me infertile, so, if my boyfriend and I wanted children at some point in the future, it would be best to undergo the first stages of IVF and store some embryos before I started the chemo.
I’ll be honest, and it might sound strange, but even at 35 we weren’t definitely sure that kids would be on the cards for us, but, and this is a big but, when you are faced with the possibility being take away from you by something like cancer, you don’t want it to have the final say. So we did the IVF. Preferring to know that if we wanted to have a child, then the option would be still there for us. Even if – because my cancer was estrogen based and getting pregnant floods your body with that hormone – it wouldn’t be for quite a while after my treatment would finish.
I did 2 rounds of IVF in the end, “short” protocol, and “long”. Both involved a lot of injections, and scans, and eventually got 8 embryos frozen. You can read more about the IVF process I went through here. It was hard and emotional and I became a pro at stabbing myself in the tummy!
Four years later, things haven’t quite gone to plan on the maybe one days having a baby through IVF front. Or the cancer front.
I finished my treatment for my primary cancer in May 2017, treatment that included 6 sessions of chemotherapy and 23 sessions of radiotherapy. Less than nine months after that treatment finished, I was told that the cancer had spread to my bones and was now incurable and as such I have been having treatment every 3 weeks (including another 6 sessions of chemo) since early 2018. My cancer is still estrogen led, so, even if it would be safe, or a good idea, for me to have a baby with the embryos we have, my oncology team wouldn’t allow it. Plus, my type of cancer has an average 3-5 year survival rate, so I’ll let you do the maths on that one.
So, that is our story of why we are childfree.
But on being childfree. Sometimes it is hard – as a woman especially. Because it’s almost expected as a woman in their late 30’s that you have a child. It’s always amongst the first things people ask you, “what do you do” “part time marketing,” “do you have kids” “no”, usually
followed by something like “why?” or “well, what do you do with your time then?” There seems to be no shame in asking people if they have children, and even asking why they don’t have children, but oddly, there seems to be a taboo in me responding to the question with “I have terminal cancer”, apparently, that makes people feel uncomfortable.
And it seems that when I do tell people I have incurable cancer, there is a universal response of “well, at least you don’t have children” as if my death will be less sad, less important, because there won’t be any children to mourn me. I know that this is a universal feeling amongst “younger people” with cancer who are child free. We are less.
I’m kind of lucky for someone my age that not all our friendship have, or I suspect, will have, have children, but more are creeping into our lives. I am so, so happy for everyone of my friends when they announce their pregnancy, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t mourn a little bit for what will never be in my life, and also for the ways our friendships will change. And whilst, I love every single one of the kids my friends have (some more than others), children and pregnacies, well, they change friendships. I have lost count of the amount of times I have tuned out conversations about soft play, and poop and bedtimes and schools, because in my life it’s things like medical trials and drugs access that take precedent – I just don’t have that many people to chat to them about.
And I will never stop feeling guilty about the fact that my parents don’t have grandchildren. I know they would have loved that more than anything else.
But, in a way being childfree makes our lives easier. Like I said, every three weeks I am in the hospital for cancer treatment. Sometimes my treatment makes me feel ill. Sometimes the fatigue hits me for days. Sometimes I finish treatment and we go away for meals in fancy restaurants. But even before cancer, sometimes we’d go on long holidays like 3 weeks in California, or have 5 European holidays over the course of a summer. Sometimes we’d book things on a whim (or we used to pre-covid). Sometimes I take the dogs into the peaks and walk for as long as I want. Sometimes I sit in the garden drinking beers and reading books unhindered by the responsibility of children.
And, well, we also have 2 incredibly demanding, needy, cuddly, adorable dogs, who I like to believe are possibly more work than children.
But each year, as September rolls around, the fertility hospital send us a letter asking what we want to do with our embryos. We both have to sign the letter to say what we want to do and so far it has been to keep them, in the freezer where they are, but the more time that goes by I know we have to make a decision on them. I can’t donate them to someone struggling because I was 35 when they were frozen (the cut off is under 35), so medical science or the bin are the other options. I’m just not ready to make that decision yet.
Thank you so so much to Emma for sharing her honest story as a guest poster and sharing her thoughts and views in this piece. As I’ve stressed from the very beginning, this is a warm, empathic platform for people to share their stories, hopes, dreams, fears. Please do read Emma’s story and leave a comment if you’d like to and share this series if you know anyone it could help. Together we are making changes.