I Got Cancer at 25 and Had to Decide Whether to Harvest My Eggs Before Chemo

There is something perverse about planning for motherhood while contemplating one’s own mortality.
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Deena Zeplowitz
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There is something perverse about planning for motherhood while contemplating one’s own mortality.

“Your tests look good, but one of them came back with a kind of unusual result.”

My heart sinks. Please no more bad news. Please no more bad news.

“It looks like you might be slightly pregnant.”

“That isn’t possible,” I say. 

I’m single, two months out of surgery, with a hole in my side where a third of my lung was removed along with a not-so-friendly growth. I’m not ready for parenthood. I’m not even sure if I want a baby. But this might be my only chance. 

Then I remember that the steps leading up to a slight pregnancy haven’t exactly been part of my recent routine.

“We’ve never had a false positive before!” the nurse quips the next morning, as she takes another blood sample. Great, I think. Another atypical result to add to the annals of medicine.

Two months before, I went into surgery thinking I would have a benign tumor removed from my lung. I came out with a rare cancer, a synovial sarcoma, lodged in an unusual spot in my body. 

Doctors tell me the statistical chances of having a recurrence, of my likelihood of survival. We’re focused on keeping me alive. After several weeks of uncertainty and heavy choices, I am on the road to chemotherapy. But first I’m at the pit stop referred to as fertility preservation.

There is something perverse about planning for motherhood while contemplating one’s own mortality. I don’t want to think about whether or not I want children. Not now. 

But my life is so out of control and maybe this is a chance to anchor it in something tangible. Chemo is full of all kinds of uncertainties -- including whether or not it will work at all. Freezing some eggs could give me something certain to hold on to.

In my first meeting with my reproductive endocrinologist, we go over routine questions and non-routine answers about my health. He tells me about the in vitro process, which strikes me as something akin to the ripening and harvesting of my body’s most valuable resources. I feel oddly like a petri dish. 

He then asks me if I’m married and if I’d like to freeze my eggs as embryos (fertilized) or oocytes (unfertilized).

28 eggs - egg carton.jpg

“I’m single,” I say. I am more uncomfortable talking to this kind 40-something year old doctor than I am with my legs in stirrups for my pelvic exam.

“Well, you can always go to a sperm bank.”

The idea of choosing the father of my children feels like way too much right now, so I opt to go with the oocytes. After all, who knows when I’ll meet Mr. Right? He tells me they aim to get about 10 eggs out of this, maybe 15 given my ideal young age of 25. 

I might keep getting my period normally once I’m through pumping a toxic cocktail through my body, but chemo tends to age the ovaries about 10 years – I’m possibly looking at very early menopause, though it’s more likely that I’ll just be facing some obstacles by the time I’m ready to have kids (which is not anytime soon). 

I could get pregnant all on my own, but really no one has any idea. It’s a guessing game. Better to be safe and prepared with a backup reserve of my trusty babies-to-be.

The intake questions don’t help to put me at ease. They include decisions about what to do with my eggs in the event of my death, an unnerving reminder of the ever-present elephant in the room. 

There’s an episode of Six Feet Under, where one of the characters, a gay man, asks his sister if she would be an egg donor and surrogate and for him and his partner, allowing each of them to contribute part of their genetic makeup to a child. 

My brother plans on spending his life with another man and hopes to have children, so now I figure if I can’t use the eggs (or don’t need to use them), we can have a television-inspired, new-age family sort of scenario. When I suggest this to him, he asks, “Will you be the mom or the aunt?”

We’d agree on big picture decisions like whether or not to feed the kids organic vegetables or how early we should introduce them to feminist role models like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I imagine what it would be like to debate with my brother over whether or not my kind-of children are allowed to get tattoos. 

“Let’s figure that one out later,” I say.

Determined to have the best, I go to the poshest fertility clinic in New York City, which means it’s the kind of place where everyone wants to be, the kind of place where I recognize small-scale stars from reality television shows. 

Each morning, hundreds of women gather in the lobby, waiting to have blood drawn, many getting trans-vaginal ultrasounds administered by a rotating series of doctors. My prized jewels have never seen so much traffic. 

In the afternoon, a nurse reports the results of my tests and gives me directions on the types and doses of medicines to give myself that night. 

After work, I return home to my fourth-floor walkup apartment, pull supplies from my backpack and the fridge that I share with my roommates, and lay them all out meticulously on the living room table. I’ve never given myself any kind of shot before this procedure and the prospect terrifies me, but I quickly become an expert, prepping my assembly line, finding a sweet fat spot for the needle, learning which drug hurts the most to inject.

But things don’t go according to plan. Things never seem to go according to plan. The eggs are not growing properly: only a couple are at the size needed, while many others are stalled before their necessary maturity. 

My body is exhausted. I’m bloated and sore and have long since switched from skinny jeans to stretchy skirts. But I don’t have the luxury of time. Cancer won’t wait until I’m ready to deal with it. I can’t wait another month for my cycle to reset, so my doctor and I decide to push through a few more days to see what happens. We switch up the drug mixture in the hopes of getting more eggs to mature.

Growing up, my mother would tell me that she hoped I would have children just like me. It was an oft-repeated curse of love. Now, after two weeks of imbalanced hormones coupled with uncooperative ovaries, I am an emotional terror. 

My Canadian politeness does not stop me from yelling “Bitch!” at a woman who knocks into me on the street. I’ve cried on about half of the city’s subway lines. But finally my oocytes are all grown up and ready to strike out on their own. 

Despite a slow start, I have an incredible number of eggs and I cannot wait to get them out of me. 

“Your wish came true!” I tell my mother. “My offspring are already taking after me. They’re stubborn, confused, and ultimately overachievers.”

On harvest day, the doctors collect 31 oocytes, 28 of which turn out to be viable. It’s an epic bounty. The nurse reports this to me as I’m coming out of anesthesia. I burst out crying. This was my one shot at success. 

I am terrified of what is to come but am granted a moment’s relief with the completion of this feat. My brother celebrates with me. 

“Ten of those are yours,” he says with a smile. “Those other eighteen are mine.”

I spend the next week on bed rest with moderate ovarian hyper stimulation, my ovaries swollen to four times their normal size. Soon after I chop off my hair, return to my oncological hospital, and prep for the next round of medical intervention. 

In a matter of months, chemo will turn me into a very sick person. I feel better having preserved some remnants of my former self as my body transforms into something I don’t recognize.

Six months later, when I’m well-through chemo and returning to normal health, I head back into the fertility clinic to take some blood tests to determine how my lady-parts fared. My numbers look even better than they did before treatment. Apparently my mutant ovaries have harnessed the power of poison to produce superhuman results.

In the two years since then, my parents have resumed tormenting me about giving them grandchildren. The prospect of a slight pregnancy doesn’t sound so bad to them. They are relentlessly focused on the future. 

Meanwhile, I still panic every time I visit the doctor. I feel healthy now, but remain guarded against the possibility that sickness is not done with me; that my body is forever marred by months of fighting to keep myself alive. But at least I have something real to hold on to. 

"Don’t worry,” I tell my parents. “I’ve got eggs in the bank.”