I was explaining to someone a few months ago that I was in chemotherapy and she looked in confusion at my five-month-old in the stroller right next to us. “But you have a baby!”
I know, I wanted to say. That’s how I feel. How can I have cancer and a baby at the same time?
Since the time I was diagnosed, it’s been, to put it mildly, emotionally confusing to experience these two huge life events at the same time. I found out I had breast cancer at the very end of my pregnancy, and spent the last week and a half of my pregnancy in a tornado of anxiety, waiting to get in to see the cancer surgeon to find out more about my prognosis and what my treatment would look like.
During this short time, I became obsessed with the issue of breastfeeding. It might seem like breastfeeding should have been the least of my concerns, and of course I didn’t want to do anything that would endanger my life, but it was such an immediate need and it started to stand for all the ways in which I would be different now. I wouldn’t be able to feed this baby like I had her brothers. I would not be a “normal” mom of a newborn.
Every time I saw one of the nursing bras or tank tops I’d already purchased, that knowledge stung me again. The “Breastfeeding is best” messaging that had felt comforting to me when my older two sons were babies now made me cry.
I wouldn’t get all my questions answered before she was born. As it turned out, she decided to come out even before I was scheduled to meet with the cancer surgeon for the first time. Unlike her two older brothers, who seemed content to Lazy River their ways out, this baby was in a hurry. My total active labor was about an hour, earning my daughter the nickname “Rocket.”
Holding my new baby, Catherine, in my arms was just as surreal a moment as it was when I’d held both her brothers. Cancer didn’t dim one watt of the astonishing relief and joy that comes with holding a tiny person God has presented to you as a gift. Those moments are as close to perfect as any I will ever experience on this earth.
Yet it’s hard to describe the convergence of emotions of the jubilation, awe and gratitude that come with having a perfect, healthy newborn baby and also the fear and anxiety that comes along with knowing you have cancer, possibly three of the most dreaded words in the universe. At the hospital newborn class I attended the day after she was born, a nurse described the sadness many women feel postpartum and instructed us to go ahead and cry in the shower. Lady, you have no idea, I thought.
As a mom of two and now three, I had looked forward to the few days in the hospital with my new baby, resting and having all my meals cooked by someone else and delivered to me in my room. But now those days took on a new meaning. That time in the hospital became Baby Time, where I could just focus on being a new mom of a perfect, healthy baby before I had to face the reality of my diagnosis and what it would mean for our future.
I already had an appointment with the surgeon on Monday morning, I knew that we’d have to leave the hospital and go straight there, straight into Cancer Time. I didn’t know what they were going to say to me there—whether they’d say I needed to have surgery next week or what kind of surgery. I didn’t know if I’d get to breastfeed her even once more after leaving the hospital.
As is always the case, those days passed way too quickly because I didn’t want them to. On Monday morning, I found myself actually wishing for a little bit of jaundice so we’d be forced to stay another day in the hospital.
But Kate was perfect and they pronounced us ready to go. I nursed her right before we walked out, trying to hide my tears at the knowledge that it could truly be the last time.
The surgeon had a lot to say at our appointment but I heard very little after she told us that I could have 4-6 weeks to breastfeed Kate before I would have to wean her for surgery. Anxiety drained out of me like air out of a leaky balloon. This was better news than I had dared hope for. Before all of this, I had planned to nurse her for as long as she wanted, two years perhaps, but now I was knee-weakeningly grateful for six weeks. In my hormone-addled state, I was almost as excited about this as about the bigger news: that my overall prognosis was very good indeed if we could wait that long before treatment.
We went home feeling tremendously relieved by the doctor’s optimistic outlook and to have a plan in place. I scheduled my surgery for the last possible date so I could have every single bit of the full six weeks beforehand.
It was hard not to count down each day of breastfeeding until the days when I had to start reducing the feedings and then finally stopping. She loved nursing and seemed so happy every time she ate, and that made me cry too. How unfair was it that I had to deprive her of this food?
Weaning her at that age was more painful than I had expected. I had thought it would be emotionally tough, but it was physically very hard too. My body kept refusing to cooperate and slow down milk production. It was clearly not ready to give up yet, and I found myself irrationally irritated with my own cells. It’s your cancerous milk ducts that are making me have to stop this! Why can’t you work with me here?!
I had held out hope that after my surgery, I might be able to restart breastfeeding, but when my pathology results came back and the oncologist recommended chemotherapy, I knew that the breastfeeding was over for good. Even if I didn’t choose to have chemo, she told me in no uncertain terms that she could not let me postpone hormonal therapy (which was not compatible with breastfeeding), so I finally had to give up completely on the idea of breastfeeding past those first six weeks.
At the distance of several months I can now feel much more calm about this decision. I did not feel calm or good about it then.
But what I can also see looking back is that having Kate tipped the balance toward joy. That joy began to eclipse all of the sorrow and anxiety I’d felt over my cancer diagnosis.
God gave us a sweet, happy baby who smiled all the time and giggled even in her sleep, who slept through the night at a younger age than I had previously thought possible. I can’t imagine who or what could have brought greater joy into our lives.
Lots of people have said to me that they can’t imagine going through all of this with a newborn, to which I would say that I can’t imagine going through it without her. For one, I frankly don’t have the time to get too worried or depressed. There are bottles to make and diapers to change and boys to pick up from school. But more importantly, despite not being a “normal” mom, I’ve found it so much easier to focus on the positive and the joyful with a baby in my arms.
I’ve written many times before about struggling with trying to be a perfect mom, and this experience has freed me once and for all from this compulsion. I certainly couldn’t and can’t be a perfect mom while going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I’m finally convinced that perfection is not at all what God wants from me as a mother. He wants me to give my best and to be thankful for what I have.
That I can do.