a survivor’s wait

Recently, I connected with the folks at curetoday.com, the on-line branch of the well-known cancer publication, CURE.  They frequently accept contributions from guest bloggers, and I told them I’d be interested in writing about my experience as a cancer survivor going through the adoption process.  After my initial offer to produce something, I put it off – like most of us do with something that’s scary or difficult.  Finally, yesterday, I coughed up a draft of my first attempt at writing specifically about how my identity as a survivor intersects with my new role as an expectant parent.  I’m still waiting to hear back from the curetoday.com editors, but in the mean time, I thought I’d publish my thoughts here, and maybe get a conversation going.  Thanks for taking the time to check it out!

Like many young adults, cancer robbed me of my fertility.  In back-to-back surgeries, I lost all of my reproductive organs.  My doctor’s initial attempt to preserve my fertility proved impossible, when early stage cancer was found in my uterus.  Within two weeks of my diagnosis with stage III ovarian cancer, it became clear that I would never be able to bear a child.

The loss of my fertility was not prolonged, or ever in doubt, after those few brief days between the initial detection of my tumor and the pathology report from my first surgery.  It was a done deal almost from the outset.  At the time, I was busy focusing on staying alive – there wasn’t much psychic space to mourn the children I would never bear.  That process of mourning was destined to take much longer, after the rigors of treatment ended, when the physical scars of my illness began to heal, and the emotional ones began to assert themselves.

Three years on, the sadness of not being able to have my own children persists in some remote way, but is tempered by the fact that my husband and I are now “waiting parents.”  Last fall, we connected with a wonderful adoption agency, and rather joyfully completed all of the requisite paperwork, profiles and trainings.  It felt amazing to be taking clear steps to building our family, to prove that we could still realize our dream of being parents, even after cancer.  We had heard many adoption horror stories, but as our own process unfolded, we felt nothing but support and positivity.

We are now about four months into our wait for our child – in adoption terms, this is a mere blink of an eye.  Still, because of the specter of cancer, it feels like an eternity, and in my weaker moments, I find myself gripped with a fear that because of my cancer, our child will never come.

Ours is an infant adoption program; the agency works with birth mothers to make adoption plans for their babies.  In most instances, the birth mothers “choose” the adoptive family.  The choice is based on a birth mother’s review of a profile the adoptive parents create, including autobiographies, photos and a letter addressed to the birth mother.  The agency provides any additional (and permissible) background information on the adoptive parents to help the birth mother make her decision.

When my husband and I created our profile, it never occurred to us for a moment that my cancer wouldn’t occupy a central place in the story of what led us to adoption.  In my own autobiography, I felt compelled to write at length about my cancer experience, how it changed and strengthened me.  We felt that anyone who wanted to understand what we are about as people would need to know about cancer.

When our profile was almost complete, we had an unexpected conversation with our social worker:  “You might,” she began, somewhat sheepishly, “want to think about taking out the reference to cancer in your Dear Birth Parent letter.”  The letter was the first page of our profile, and served as a quick introduction; later in the profile, each of our autobiographies contained more detailed information.  Our agency told us repeatedly that women often never even read the full autobiographies, that they tended to rely on the photos and opening letter.

We got the picture right away:  put your cancer in the closet.  Subtext:  women are not going to want to place their baby with you if they know you’ve had cancer.

Needless to say, my husband and I both bristled, and we got into our one and only uncomfortable conversation with our social worker.  In the end, though, we acquiesced.  The point is to adopt a child, not to go on a crusade to try and educate every birth mother who reads our profile about the fact that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.  So we set our convictions aside, and left the cancer reference out of our opening letter.

Still, maybe because of that one difficult conversation, or maybe because I can never fully escape from the reality of how cancer permanently altered my path to parenthood, I carry this fear.  It is a fear that because of my cancer, I will never be a parent.  Never mind that our agency’s director always makes a point of telling waiting parents:  “everyone in this room will be a parent.”  She means it, and in my rational mind, I know it’s true.  Our patience and determination will be rewarded; our child will come to us.

But when I sit in a room filled with other waiting parents, and look around at their eager, anxious faces, I can’t help but wonder just how different my wait feels, when it is cancer which has brought me to this place of anticipation and uncertainty.

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3 Responses to a survivor’s wait

  1. Emily Olsen says:

    Oh Emily,
    Yet again, your words reverberate in my heart and could have come from my own mouth. We’ve spoken and you know how Jarrud and I had struggled with the grief of my lost fertility. We’ve also played the “waiting game” and it does seem so much worse because of what our bodies have already gone through.

    Recently, a close friend of mine started the adoption process as well. She has two biological children but had several miscarriages (two were late stage ~3 or 4 months pregnant) between her two boys and after the birth of her second boy. It helped me heal a bit as I realized that even though she did not face cancer, her body had been through perhaps an even greater hell because she got her wish, to be pregnant, and then had it ripped from her several times.

    We all face huge trials, but I have to believe that there is a greater reward waiting because of it. In my case, it was Lucas; in your case it will take form in a perfect baby son or daughter. The wait sucks…but I promise it will be so much more than worth it when it happens.

    Still sending prayers, hugs, and good vibes!
    ~Emily O.

  2. Susan Knox says:

    Emyee Bee!
    You already seem like a parent to me. It’s apparent. (Sorry…that was such a Mark Springer-ism)

    The conversation with the social worker that you relayed made me think about the larger issue of how human beings deal with the suffering of others. It reminded me of another example that I used to encounter frequently: Palestinian suffering in the face of non-Palestinians. I know, that is a very weird comparison, and one that you may think of as de-personalizing, but hear me out here…
    I remember when I lived in the West Bank (2000-2006) how I spoke to people – adults and children alike – whose houses had been bulldozed and whose loved ones had been injured or killed in brutal ways. A lot of them would present foreigners (like me) with photos or videos of the carnage. They were angry and grieving and wanting to share their pain, not necessarily to gain sympathy, but to gain some justice and allies in their struggle.
    By and large, most viewers of the images felt sympathy and horror, but also displayed an emotional distance born of the hope, or rather conviction, that such things were not in the cards for them. Ever. Thus, foreigners simply could not fully relate to the photographs and gristly accounts that in many cases were thrust in their view.

    This, as I’ve said to anyone who will listen, is an essential problem of the Palestinian PR machine: representations of violent suffering lack universal appeal. More “palatable” or “effective” images of eager schoolchildren, laughing grandfathers, and others which state that We Are No Different From You in Cincinnati (and there are plenty of those from which to choose) have all been lost in the untempered grief and outrage of mourners, none of whom care about making his or her grief more palatable to the faint of heart.

    So, to close this analogy…I have no doubt that you, too, have come to terms with people’s weakness in the face of the violence you’ve endured, and beaten. I’m sure – no, I know – that you have also developed a certain grace that arrives after bitterness, anger, and disappointment in people wax and wane, a grace that acknowledges extreme degrees of human weakness and strength and every color in between. So, even though until now I have said relatively little about your battle with cancer, please know that I’ve been listening.

    Annnd…as for impending parenthood, I think that only joy awaits you and Mike and the baby. For what it’s worth, I too thought that ‘my’ disease and my not-100%- perfect blood sugars would prevent me from being a parent. I think that part of me even thought I wasn’t worthy of parenthood. Now, I have no doubt that I’m worthy. Little people have a miraculous tendency to convince you of that…

    Much love and continued courage, my dear dear Em –

    Love Susie

  3. Emily,

    Here’s the comment I am posting on the Cure’s website regarding your posting. Congrats for your guest blog on the Cure. Here was what my comment said:


    What an outstanding posting! Very poignant and thought-provoking. Reading this was like looking in the mirror, as cancer treatment robbed me of my fertility and I adopted a baby girl from China.

    I waited four years, and I had to provide a note from my oncologist that I was in good enough health to adopt.

    I understand what you are going through and wish you and your husband the best. I, too, thought I couldn’t become a parent because of 1) my cancer history and 2) I got divorced after cancer.

    You can become a parent. It’s not too late. You just need patience and perseverance, and your little one will come.

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