By Lillian McTernan
The first night in a new apartment is almost always weird for me: leftover adrenaline, my fanatical desire to get unpacked, and the disorientation of being in an unfamiliar environment usually join forces to give me serious insomnia. Given this long-standing trend, my first night in the apartment I moved into in 2010 with my then-boyfriend — the man who quickly became my fiancé and is now my husband — stands out as a huge anomaly.
That night, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. I dreamed that I was walking into the kitchen of our new apartment to get some water, only to run into a little boy. Startled, I asked who he was. “I’m your son!” He said happily.
“Oh,” I replied in bewilderment. “What’s your name?” (I felt like a jerk for not recognizing my own kid, but I also wondered where, exactly, he came from.)
“Jonathan,” he said with an adorable smile. (This child was impressively calm for someone whose mother didn’t know the most basic, fundamental facts about him.)
Still befuddled, I took a closer look at this good-natured, sweet boy. He had a full head of thick, dark hair, just like my husband and I both had when we were children. He had my husband’s sparkling hazel eyes and the same dimpled chin that I inherited from my father. He was the perfect combination of me and my husband. He was undoubtedly our son.
“Well, Jonathan, I’m so glad I get to be your mommy. Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich if you’d like something to eat.” (When in doubt, offer the child a sandwich! After all, my husband and I both love food, so it stands to reason that our son would probably be really excited about mealtime.)
He nodded happily and took my hand as we walked into the kitchen. I knew, without question, that this boy was mine and that I loved him immensely.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I want to be a mom — and I have always, always loved babies. A case in point: I had a tonsillectomy when I was 12, and the one thing that helped me feel less scared of being in the hospital was getting to walk by the nursery and see all the newborn babies. Motherhood has always been a crucial part of my future.
When we got married, my husband and I decided not to rush into baby-making. We’d had a whirlwind relationship, and we wanted to take our time to let the dust settle before adding other tiny humans into the mix. Since I was 30 at the time, my OB/GYN assured me this was fine. As long as we didn’t wait too long, my fertility wouldn’t be compromised by a couple years of newly-wedded bliss. I also figured that, due both to my student loans and the obscene cost of childcare where we live, we’d do well to build up some savings before basically having to sell our kidneys to afford daycare. Salary bumps before baby bumps, you know?
And then, almost two years after our wedding, I suddenly started hemorrhaging. Tampons were just an exercise in futility, and I had to change my uber-high absorbency pads, which were each approximately the size of a Winnebago, every hour. I called my OB/GYN right away, and she prescribed a course of Provera, a form of progesterone, to stem the bleeding.
After a couple of days, though, the bleeding not only didn’t stop, but escalated dramatically and was accompanied by debilitating cramps. The pain came in waves, overtook my whole body, and, because urgent care doctors don’t mess around when it comes to pain management, left me with a stockpile of prescription pain meds. I soon started producing enormous blood clots, and that’s when I got really scared. I often cope with fear by resorting to humor, so I tried to come up with funny ways to describe the situation to my husband. “DUDE!” I once yelled from the bathroom, “I’ve given birth to a blood clot the size of a hamster! Congratulations to us! BUT HOW ARE WE EVER GOING TO FIND A ONESIE THAT WON’T LOOK TERRIBLE ON OUR BLOOD CLOT HAMSTER BABY?”
My doctor ordered a pelvic ultrasound, which showed a uterine polyp – a relatively common condition that would explain my blood clot hamster babies and could be addressed via an outpatient surgical procedure.
A week after the D&C during which the polyp had been removed, my OB/GYN called and said the words that changed everything: “I’m so sorry. You have endometrial cancer.” It was caught really early, thankfully, which was one of the few positive things about the whole situation. Although the typical treatment is a hysterectomy, my doctors knew how badly I wanted to have a baby – and since the cancer was found so early, my gynecologic oncologist decided to treat it with ludicrously high doses of progesterone in the interest of preserving my fertility.
And so, I spent 14 months on doses of progesterone huge enough, in the words of the late Wendy Wasserstein, to make a Tyrannosaurus Rex give birth to a sofa. Although it made me feel like I had permanent PMS (I might have burst into tears at the sight of dirty dishes in the sink, and this might have happened on more than one occasion, but I can neither confirm nor deny such allegations), the progesterone did its job, and eventually I was cancer-free. As soon as I was given a clean bill of health, my doctors gave me the green light to commence Operation: Motherhood.
I took multiple rounds of Clomid (a medication that induces ovulation), downed an absurd number of supplements to support ovulation and implantation (all with my doctor’s approval, of course), religiously did yoga for fertility every evening after work, had more bloodwork done than I care to remember, got acupuncture, and stopped just short of sacrificing a goat at the altar of every fertility deity in human history. Nonetheless, every pregnancy test came back negative. Like barnacles clinging to the remains of long-lost shipwrecks, each month I clung to the hope that maybe this time I’d be pregnant – but I never was.
And then, eight months later, I started to have abnormal spotting. I knew this was a warning sign that the cancer could be coming back, and I was in a movie theater bathroom when the bleeding started. I began to shake with panic, and I fought to keep from hyperventilating or breaking into hysterical sobs. I knew the jig was up. This wasn’t confirmed until two weeks later, after another ultrasound and a biopsy, and then we knew for sure: the cancer was back, and this time I needed to have a hysterectomy.
Once again, I tried to use humor to cope. I renamed my uterus as Demon Uterus, and I decided that my surgery wouldn’t be merely a hysterectomy, but also an exorcism. I asked if I could send my reproductive organs to Congress, just to troll them for being such schmucks about women’s health. (Sadly, the answer was no. But if I could’ve done it, Demon Uterus would’ve gone straight to Capitol Hill.) I also found this picture, which I loved and sent to my surgeon:
The surgery/exorcism, which happened last August, went exceptionally well (did my surgeon invite an old priest and a young priest into the OR?), and to everyone’s great relief, the cancer was once again caught very early. The final pathology report showed that it was both early stage and low grade, which meant that I didn’t need any further treatment. In that sense, I was lucky that things happened the way they did: I never needed to go through chemo or radiation, and my chances of recurrence are somewhere between 0-1%.
So, from a physical perspective, I’m fine now – and, if I had to deal with cancer at all, I’m glad it was caught early and easily treatable. But from an emotional perspective, it’s been a different ballgame.
Having to give up the possibility of ever becoming pregnant has been a bitter, chalky pill to swallow. I’ve had to let go of the dream, in both the literal and figurative meanings of the word, of the sweet, tow-headed little boy who had my dimpled chin and shared my affinity for sandwiches. The finality of it has been hard to cope with, and knowing that this is irrevocably, permanently over – despite having done everything I could to preserve my fertility and have a baby – has been far more difficult than recovering from the surgery.
However, I started to turn a corner when I decided that I want to make something good come of this. As much as I wish things hadn’t turned out this way, I can’t change what happened. This is my reality, and I can either let it undo me or I can work to make something positive rise from the proverbial wreckage. This, I realized, will be a crucial part of my emotional healing process.
During the years when I was in treatment and then trying to get pregnant, I was locked in what felt like a permanent state of writer’s block. But since my decision to make something good come from this experience, I’ve found that writing about infertility is incredibly cathartic. And, just as importantly, it actually has the potential to help other people who are also riding the fertility struggle bus.
Infertility can be a source of deep shame, and women often suffer in silence or anonymity. Between the potent cultural taboos against talking about one’s lady parts (the horror!) and having strong — not to mention negative — emotions (wait, women get angry? OH GOD NO, LOCK UP THE BOOZE AND THE CHILDREN), many women feel like they can’t speak openly about infertility and its emotional fallout.
This, of course, leads to a deep sense of isolation, which makes things even more miserable. The last thing anyone needs, especially when dealing with the visceral sadness of not being able to have the baby that they so desperately ache for, is to feel alone and misunderstood.
Knowing that, I’ve started brainstorming article topics that could be useful for women coping with infertility and the people who want to support them. Depending on how well that goes, eventually I’d like to write a book that shares peoples’ stories and anecdotes about their own experiences and coping mechanisms. We all have unique stories, experiences, and lessons that can be helpful to our infertile sisters in arms.
If you’re dealing with infertility, please know that you’re not alone. I, and many other women like me, are struggling too, and none of us should have to suffer in silence. If those who are willing to speak openly can bring their own experiences into the light, then we’ll be able to start breaking those taboos. And the more we drain those taboos of their destructive power, the more it will become clear that we’re not alone.
I never would have chosen this, and I will pilot the space shuttle then assume the Presidency before I start saying things like “cancer and infertility have been a journey/gift/blessing.” Quite simply, that hasn’t been true for me at all. They haven’t been a journey; they’ve been an ordeal. They haven’t been a gift; they’ve been a flaming bag of dog turds left on my doorstep. And yet, I choose not to let this shatter me. I choose to ensure that although infertility has been a huge loss, it won’t be a waste.
A faceless bureaucrat in DC by day, Lillian McTernan spends her evenings reading, watching too much TV, running, listening to podcasts, and guzzling tea. She’s unhealthily obsessed with library books, coffee mugs, scented candles, and Instagram. She’s getting her writing mojo back after going through a rough patch, and if you have an infertility story to share, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.